Clallam County backs bridge effort: Officials iffy about financial support

Cherrie Kidd

Cherrie Kidd

PORT ANGELES — Cherie Kidd made an impassioned plea to the Clallam County commissioners for support and money for suicide fencing on the Eighth Street bridges, where three people have jumped to their deaths since June and seven have died since February 2009.

The Port Angeles City Council member and former mayor received backing from commissioners for a letter urging state legislators to help fund the estimated $1.4 million project, which still lacks $350,000 in construction costs.

That does not include fence maintenance estimated at $800,000 over the 65-year lifespan of the bridges.

“We are just looking everywhere for funding,” Kidd said Monday. “I am trying to put my finger in the dike, and there’s a lot of pressure.”

Commissioners gave Kidd a wait-and-see response on whether county money is available to help fund the barriers, pledging to consult with county Administrator Jim Jones on any funding that might be available.

“I don’t know where it might be drawn from, if they choose to spend the money,” Jones said of the commissioners after the meeting.

“We’ve got our own bridge someone just jumped off of,” Jones added.

He was referring to Jeri Lynn Smith, 68, of Sequim, whom authorities said jumped from the Elwha River Road bridge west of Port Angeles the weekend of Jan. 6. Her body has not been found, county Chief Criminal Deputy Brian King said Tuesday.

“If they can’t jump [at Eighth Street], they can go a mile and half down the Discovery Trail and jump [at the Elwha River Road bridge],” Jones said. “We have to consider that, too.”

Board Chairman Mark Ozias said he agreed with Commissioner Randy Johnson, an independent from Port Angeles, who called suicide a countywide mental health issue.

“We need to stay focused on the big picture,” said Ozias, a Sequim Democrat.

Ozias suggested organizing a community forum that includes Peninsula Behavioral Health and other organizations “to have a focused conversation about this issue.”

In a later interview, Ozias said scant money is available to fund the effort.

“There is not a readily available funding source,” he said.

“The primary role the county has to play is much more broad than just funding the bridges.

“I see the county’s biggest role as coordinating resources broadly.”

The city has pledged $442,000 in real estate excise taxes, $434,000 in general funds, and $50,000 deferred from capital projects for the fencing.

An additional $124,000 in donations, including a $100,000 pledge from an anonymous family, has boosted the total dedicated to the project $1,050,000 — and left $350,000 more to be raised.

State Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles, a Democrat who represents the 24th District, has said he is trying to obtain state highway funds to cover the gap.

Seven people have jumped to their deaths from the 100-foot-tall bridges since they were completed in 2009 over the Valley Creek gorge and Tumwater Truck Route, including Ashley Ann Wishart, 15, in November; Joseph Daniel Henry, 31, in October and Paul Gerald Sutherland, 49, in June.

“If we had a hole in the road at Front and Lincoln [streets] and seven people died, we’d fix the hole,” Kidd said.

“If we don’t stop the opportunity to jump from the bridges, then we will have further fatalities, and we can’t have that.

“It’s a place of danger.”

Kidd said the larger mental health issues that compel people to commit suicide also need to be addressed, but the bridges present an immediate danger.

“We have to stop it, then we can go back to how do we prevent it,” she said.

The bridges have 4-foot, 6-inch combination concrete barriers and steel railings.

The new fencing will be at least 8 feet, 8 inches tall.

The spans are nine blocks from the courthouse where Kidd gave her presentation Monday.

“It’s not just the city, it’s all of Clallam County that drives and walks over those bridges,” she said.

All of the suicide victims — three men, three women and a teen — were living in Port Angeles when they died, although Henry had been a longtime Forks resident.

During her presentation, Kidd choked back emotion as she held up the Peninsula Daily News obituary of the seventh victim, Ashley Wishart.

The 15-year-old Port Angeles High School sophomore jumped to her death Nov. 13 from the Valley Creek bridge.

“Actually, when Ashley jumped, it just broke everyone’s heart,” Kidd said.

“That’s when the community came to us, got together, and said we just can’t have our children in danger, our citizens in danger when they’re in distress.”

Kidd said committing suicide off any bridge is “a spontaneous act” that should not be made facile by having fences that are easy to clear.

“We find that [for] people with mental issues and people who are seriously stressed, it’s become the place to go, and that’s not what we want in our community,” Kidd said.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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