Clallam commissioners asked to back efforts against suicides at Port Angeles bridges

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County commissioners are being asked to support efforts to help reduce suicides at the Eighth Street bridges.

Port Angeles Deputy Mayor Cherie Kidd urged the board to back short- and long-term solutions to what she described Monday as a “public safety emergency.”

Seven people have jumped to their deaths from the twin bridges over Tumwater and Valley creeks since they reopened in 2009 with 4-foot, 6-inch barriers.

Three of those deaths occurred within the past six months.

“Unfortunately, if someone is having a mental health crisis in their lives, it’s all too easy to go over the fencing,” Kidd told commissioners in a 4½ hour work session Monday.

“Because it is a mental health issue,” Kidd added, “I’m coming to you and asking for your insight, for your partnership, for any help that you can find that you can contribute to this.”

After 15-year-old Ashley Ann Wishart jumped to her death from the Valley Creek bridge Nov. 13 — and the public outcry that followed — the Port Angeles City Council agreed to raise temporary barriers on the bridges.

The council will vote today on the addition of permanent “protective screenings” to the 2018-2023 Capital Facilities Plan and Transportation Improvement Plan.

The seven-member council also will consider today a donation policy to accept public funds for safety improvements and discuss engineering options for protective screenings on the 100-foot-tall bridges. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 321 E. Fifth St.

“We need community participation,” Kidd told commissioners.

“We need skin in the game from the community.

“The city is looking for short-term solutions, but I’m coming to you to be a part of our long-term solution,” she added.

Commissioners agreed to help support the city’s efforts and committed to a follow-up work session in January.

Kidd, a third-term council member, is working with the 24th District’s legislative delegation, particularly state Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, to secure state funds for the estimated $1 million safety retrofit.

“Sen. [Kevin] Van De Wege and [state Rep.] Steve Tharinger are also on board with this,” Kidd added.

“But we all know all our governments — state government and local governments — are under pressure financially, so we really have to put this together as a community and make it work as a community.”

The Eighth Street bridges are eligible for state transportation funds because Tumwater Truck Route is part of the state highway system. The truck route runs under the western span as state Highway 117.

“I’m just opening the conversation on where we can look as county members for funding,” Kidd said.

Kidd provided research to show that suicide barriers are effective. She cited a Harvard study that found that nine out of 10 suicides would be stopped if higher barriers were in place.

Communities in California, New Jersey, Florida, Australia, Norway, Sweden and elsewhere are retrofitting bridge fencing for safety purposes, Kidd said.

The old Eighth Street bridges had 7-foot, 8-inch fences that were added after they were built.

Plans to install higher fencing on the new bridges were scrapped because of the escalating cost of steel, Kidd said.

Because the project was more than $1 million over-budget, city officials opted for a plain design with lower fences. Kidd has advocated for taller barriers since she joined the council in 2008.

“In this most recent suicide, it was just so easy to go over the side that three people rushing to the aid of this young lady were not able to reach her in time,” Kidd said of Wishart.

“If we can put up these barriers, we can save someone who is making an irrational, spontaneous decision.”

Mark Ozias, chair of the county board, suggested a robust discussion in January about the bridges and the provision of mental health services in Clallam County.

“Maybe there’s some more creative thinking that we can do, or work with some of our providers, to see if there is additional resources in terms of professional expertise or crisis response or what not that might be able to be brought to bear,” Ozias said.

Commissioner Bill Peach suggested as a possibility the addition of mental health support in the court system to detect suicide risk.

Peach noted that one man who recently jumped to his death from the Tumwater bridge had spent 400 days of his final two years in jail.

“That was the best we could do for this person,” Peach said.

“There’s got to be a better way.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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