At New River Gorge National River, an Iconic Bridge Attracts Suicide Jumpers

New River Gorge Bridge. Photo by Teke via Wikipedia.

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.

Comments

Once on top of that bridge and seeing the beauty that God created how could someone take his own life in vain? That is selfish. No wonder it's a sin in God's eyes.

Mr. Martinez... Remember this man jumped from the bridge in the middle of the night, so the beauty and majesty which may have stopped him in the daylight eluded him. One day he is a living, vibrant person, the next an anonymous "offender" of the beauty there. I have been to the bridge. It is one of the most spectacular places on Earth, and I agree the beauty of the area defies description. I also know the young man in question. The only thought I can offer to you and others who have heard about this tragedy is that he must have felt a sense of serenity in his choice. People who take their own lives do so at a time when their good sense is compromised in some way. The time it must have taken him to soar through the air to his final destination still offered him the opportunity to make his peace and be forgiven if somehow presence of mind returned to him. No one truly knows but him and God. Please remember both him and his family and friends in your prayers.

Thank you for your comments, Anon. They lend valuable perspective to this story, and I couldn't have said it better.

I too have been touched by the loss of a loved one on this bridge since the last entry. I try to get past the anger and fruitfulness of a young life lost because of the finality of the act. We do not know the desperation and hopelessness one feels because they had chosen not to let us. We can not change things nor can we find answers, we can only hope and pray that our lord will grace our loved one's soul with the peace that they could not find with us.

I have lived and been raised in Fayette county most of my life. The New River Gorge Bridge area was known as "lover's leap" in colonial times. The Oak Hill town archives, which are restricted, support this information. It is also recorded that "masses" were held there by local Pastors in the late 1800's. Information about number of suicides, and or related material is a taboo subject around the tourist trap area. I have know several people, and heard several stories of "completely normal" people, just one day up and jump off the bridge. At least once per year. I find the facts, and town practices to be questionable.

Brian, I'm not sure what you mean by town practices. Could you expand on that a little?

I also personally knew the person mentioned in the article, and while I agree it is selfish, this was the only selfish thing he had ever done. To those that knew him, he was amazing, giving, and caring. But also must have felt lost in some aspect. He had angel wings. I miss him dearly, but yet I am angry with him. As the one year mark approaches, I still think of him often and wish that he would have asked for help.

Thanks for writing this. It brought tears to my eyes. I knew the deceasesd and it's nice to hear your positive out take instead of the comment before yours.

There was another suicide at New River Gorge Bridge on August 19. The victim this time was a 28-year old Ohio man.

I knew the latest man from Ohio that comitted suicide off this bridge August 19, 2009. He was such a good guy and I grew up with him and went to school with him. My thoughts and prayers go out to his friends and family. Something should be done to prevent these suicides.

My son was the young man who died Sept. 9, 2008. We had his 35th [not 25th as written] birthday Aug.31 and 9 days later he was gone. He was a beautiful , kind , loving man who thought he was a failure because he had failed in his relationship. He could not see past that to realize how much his family and friends loved him and how much his son needed and loved him. I am dreading the approach of Sept. 9 but I know that I can
get through it with the strength God has given me. I miss his wonderful hugs but I know that he is in the a place where the demons he kept hidden from us have no power. Thank you for your kind words. Remember us all in your prayers. Everyone needs them no matter how strong we think we are.

My sympathies to those of you who lost someone at New River Gorge.

There was a time when I also viewed those who committed suicide as selfish. I know much better now. Many times the person who commits suicide is acutely ill (psychologically) at the time. And Brian Logan has an accurate perspective. Studies have shown that a disturbingly high percentage of people who attempted suicide report that they only contemplated the act for minutes before making a drastic action.

Although there is some controversy over this, some "Magnets" for suicide, such as the Golden Gate Bridge can be barricaded to decrease the amount of suicides that occur there. I've never been to New River Gorge, so I'm not sure if park managers should look into installing some sort of prevention structures on that bridge. Some suicide magnets, such as the Grand Canyon, cannot be barricaded. For these places, the last thing standing between a suicidal person and their desperate act will often be a park ranger.

For anyone who would like to increase their understanding of suicide and therefore have more compassion for suicidal people, I highly recommend this book.

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide
by Kay Redfield Jamison

Retrofitting suicide "magnet" bridges like the Golden Gate Bridge and the New River Gorge Bridge sounds like a good idea, at least on the surface of it, but the high cost of the work and the negative impacts on bridge esthetics and sightlines are normally considered to outweigh the suicide-deterring benefits. If you believe that saving human lives outweighs these values, you should make your feelings known to the appropriate policy- and decision-makers. In the case of the New River Gorge Bridge, that would not be the National Park Service. The bridge is owned and operated by the state of West Virginia.

I thought of you often this past week, and can only image how hard it had to be for you. I miss him dearly...as I closed my pool this weekend, the thing he & I did together every year, I still have a hard time believing he is gone. My thoughts and prayers are always with you.

Putting up barricades on these landmarks might be a good idea but like the New River Gorge Bridge most "scenic" areas have more than one location to leap from. On each side of the bridge, is walkways and overlooks that are as easily to access as the span itself...I live about 2 hours from there and have visited it several times.. As I walk across it this weekend on Bridge Day, my family and I will condone a moment of silence to those who has lost their lives here... GODSPEED..

It is very ignorant to call a suicidal person selfish. Suicidal people suffer from a very serious disease called depression. As a person that has survived suicide and battled depression for 6 years I can tell you first hand that it is the stigma of depression that prevents many people from seeking help in the first place. Society tells us that depressed people are weak minded and that suicidal people are selfish cowards. This makes us feel isolated and alone. After my attempt not only did I have to deal with my depression but I also had to deal with insensitive and hurtful comments from family and friends. If you really expect someone to seek help then you need to change your attitudes!! durrr....

If you are contemplating suicide I can tell you that there is hope! Dont do it. Depression is a serious condition but with meds therapy and a strong support system it is treatable. :)

I spent half of my life going back and forth between my home in sc and my family home there I am a combat veteran who has contemplated suicide many times since returning home and I truly feel for the families of these people. these people no matter what the circumstances were selfish people. there is no good reason to kill yourself and the bridge does not attract them to commit suicide mental illness does. some of the comments that have been made on here are really stupid. there is nothing worth taking your own life especially a failed relationship

Dear Anonymous,
I am saddened that 2 1/2 years after this column was first posted you felt it necessary to comment on it. You said yourself that you have contemplated suicide. Thank God you did not follow through with those feelings. However, to judge a person by calling them selfish, only shows that you do not appreciate how lucky you are. You have maintained a hold on sanity when in the depths of despair but some people lose their tentative grip. Don't judge them for their weaknesses. The selfish people are those that take others lives before they take their own. Hell has a special place for them.
My prayers are with you. May God bless you and watch over you on your next journey home.

I'm imagining he chose to jump from this particular bridge because the jump is a long clear passageway, without injury on the way down. The parks don't always provide that advantage. (trees, etc.)

I would like to start off by saying that I am terribly sorry for everyone of your losses... I too have lost a family member to suicide fairly recently. He had planned a three week what we thought was a vacation which ended on this bridge... He was a great uncle and a wonderful man that will be missed very much.... Most of these comments have helped me to understand a little more but it's all still very hard to grasp.rest in peace corey...

It's sad that communities don't offer suicide services locally so people feel compelled to kill themselves. If people left behind knew that suicide was on the docket, they would be offered the opportunity to understand why, for some, suicide is a permanent solution to a PERMANENT problem.