In the predawn darkness of September 9, a 25-year old man from Ohio leaped to his death from the famously high New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia. The victim’s body was found after daybreak among the boulders below.
Why did this young man choose such a far-from-home place to end his life? Whatever his reasons, we know that he made the choice well in advance. Among the items investigators found in his car were a suicide note, sealed letters for his parents and fiancé, and a Mapquest printout with directions from his home to the bridge.
I‘m not surprised that the young man knew about the bridge, nor would it surprise me to learn that he had personally seen it before. Built in 1980 on U.S. Route 19 near Fayetteville, West Virginia, the New River Gorge Bridge is an architectural icon and one of the most famous bridges in the country.
Soaring higher than in any other vehicular bridge in the western hemisphere (though not as high as the pedestrians-only Royal Gorge Bridge tourist attraction in Colorado) the New River Gorge Bridge is perched a remarkable 876 feet above the river and the CSX railroad. That’s so high that the roughly 300 thrill seeking BASE jumpers who will leap from it during the Bridge Day festival this October 18 can reasonably expect their chutes to open safely. There have been four known BASE-jumper fatalities at the bridge -- one each in 1983, 1986, 1987, and 2006. The 1986 fatality was an illegal jump not associated with Bridge Day.
The New River Gorge Bridge is owned and operated by West Virginia’s highway department, and patrolled by the Fayetteville County Sheriff’s Department. However, it is situated within the boundaries of the New River Gorge National River. Park personnel inevitably become involved in many incidents that originate on the bridge. Thus, while it was a Fayetteville County Deputy Sheriff who found the suicide victim’s abandoned car on the bridge’s southbound shoulder at 4:00 a.m., it was park rangers searching the riverbanks who found the body after daybreak.
Suicide is not common in the national parks, but neither is it a rarity. Hundreds have been recorded in the park system over the decades, including at least 20 in the first six months of this year.
Suicides occur at various parks across America, and the fatal venues seem to have been chosen for convenience in many instances. But parks that inspire feelings of beauty or majesty do get their share of suicides. Grand Canyon National Park, for example, has averaged about three suicides annually in recent years. At least five people have ended their lives at Yellowstone National Park in the past ten years.
Al Nash, Chief of Public Affairs at Yellowstone, agrees with others who’ve observed that some individuals must want to have a connection with a place of beauty, majesty, or solace in their final moments. It’s hard to believe that the New River Gorge Bridge could have inspired such thoughts and feelings at four o’clock in the morning on September 9. Neither was it a convenient place for the young man from Ohio to end his life.
There have been many suicides at the New River Gorge Bridge since it was completed nearly three decades ago. I couldn’t get cumulative statistics, but Candace Tinkler, the park’s Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services, told me that several suicide jumpers can be expected in a typical year. Whatever the number, it is stressful for the park staff, and they never get used to it.
Rangers receive training in suicide prevention, and some get the chance to use it. Several years ago at New River Gorge, Ranger Randy Fisher used crisis negotiation to save the life of a man who was getting ready to jump from the bridge. For this he received an honorary legislative citation from the state of West Virginia and Governor Joe Manchin. Unfortunately, opportunities to save lives in this way are rare. People bent on suicide at New River Gorge usually just abandon their cars on the bridge and go over the railing into the void.
New River Gorge Bridge appears to attract suicide jumpers in much the same way that the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge do. Some people have driven hundreds of miles to end their lives by jumping into the Grand Canyon, and more than 1,200 people have jumped to their deaths from the 71-year old Golden Gate Bridge (some landing within Golden Gate National Recreation Area). There can be no doubt that the Golden Gate’s notoriety as the world’s most popular place to commit suicide has a magnetic appeal for people who want to commit suicide. (A Bay Area resident told me that Golden Gate Bridge authorities ceased publicizing the body count as it neared 1,000 because too many people would be tempted to jump if they thought they would be remembered as Golden Gate suicide victim number 1,000.)
Is there any practical way to prevent people from jumping off the New River Gorge Bridge, or to make it less likely that they will? Higher guard rails, fencing, and netting have been considered in the past, but many
people object to actions that would be cost prohibitive and detract from the bridge's aesthetic appeal. There have been suggestions to install call boxes on the bridge, but nothing has come of it. You’d need a suicide prevention call center, for one thing, and there’s none in the area.
Suicide prevention does not have to be a last-ditch effort taking place on a bridge or rooftop. People contemplating suicide need to know that there is hope and help as long as there is life. Doctors, clergy, family, and friends all have a role to play.
It’s too late, in any event, to help the latest suicide victim at New Rive Gorge. Our heartfelt condolences to this young man’s family, fiancé, and friends.