August 31, 2014

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Akron debates bridge suicide barriers

AKRON — The man pulled over and got out of his vehicle, then climbed over the chest-high brown railing with a lighted cigarette in his hand and jumped.

Jeffrey Coleman watched from his yard as the man fell 120 feet to his death.

It wasn’t the first time that someone committed suicide in Coleman’s inner-city neighborhood, nestled in a green valley near Akron’s All-America bridge, also known as the Y bridge for the way it divides in two at one end.

Coleman thinks a barrier to deter jumpers is long overdue at the bridge where 26 people have committed suicide over the last 10 years, including seven in 2006.

In Akron, like other cities where easy-to-climb bridges attract those seeking to end their lives, the effort to construct barriers gets sidetracked by high costs and debates over whether they only cause depressed individuals to choose another way to die.

Most mental health experts say barriers deter suicides, and one study suggests an individual contemplating suicide would not seek another site to jump.

Barrier studies are under way at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where more than 1,200 suicides have occurred since 1937, and in Seattle where 50 people have killed themselves since 1995 by jumping from the Aurora Bridge.

Like Akron’s Y bridge, the Aurora Bridge spans a populated area composed of tech companies. The suicides have traumatized workers.

“If you’re on the promenade at lunch, you might see someone jumping off,” said Gregg Hirakawa, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Although there’s strong support for a barrier, finding $5 million for the project is a problem, Hirakawa said. No opposition has arisen, he said, but he knows that a proposal to change the aesthetics of the 80-year-old structure probably would draw some protests.

Akron Councilman Jim Shealey, whose ward includes the Y bridge, supports installation of a barrier. Mayor Don Plusquellic, while in favor of a barrier, opposes blocking the scenery with a chain-link fence, spokesman Mark Williamson said. The bridge provides panoramic views of the valley it spans.

Options such as an acrylic fence, which would preserve the view and the bridge’s appearance, would cost up to $6 million.