Man told others of fear of heights before falling to his death off Port Angeles bridge

PORT ANGELES — A 49-year-old Port Angeles man who jumped Thursday from the Tumwater Truck Route bridge said he had a fear of heights before he plunged to his death, a Port Angeles police officer who spoke to the man said Friday.

The officer, Cpl. David Dombrowski, on Friday identified longtime Clallam County resident Paul Gerald Sutherland as the man who jumped from the Eighth Street bridge over the Tumwater Truck Route shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon.

“I pointedly asked him … if he was considering jumping and asked him if he was considering jumping off the bridge,” Dombrowski said.

“He said, ‘No, I’ve got too much to live for, I’ve got two kids,’ and that ended the conversation.”

Two men and three women have intentionally fallen to their deaths from the Tumwater and Valley Creek bridges on Eighth Street in the eight years since the spans were replaced in February 2009.

Police had declined to identify Sutherland on Thursday until his next of kin had been notified.

Dombrowski said Sutherland was a restaurant cook and the divorced father of two grown children.

Sutherland’s death “was a surprise” to his relatives, Dombrowski said. “They weren’t expecting it.”

Sutherland, a resident of the 1800 block of West 16th Street, was a cook at Joshua’s Restaurant in Port Angeles for the past four years, said the restaurant’s owner, Dee Gardner.

Joshua’s cook Renee Beck said she and Sutherland started working at the restaurant within two weeks of each other.

“He was usually happy-go-lucky, upbeat, sang all the time,” Beck said Friday.

Beck said Sutherland raised his two children after getting divorced, had recently become a grandfather and frequently visited his mother and father in Sequim.

She said Sutherland told her Wednesday that he had had his 15-year-old dog euthanized.

Beck said he also told her he had been on the roof of his home Wednesday to help conquer his fear of heights.

Dombrowski said several witnesses saw Sutherland standing on the bridge sidewalk facing north for about 90 minutes Thursday before he intentionally went over the railing.

“Witnesses all said the same thing: that he simply jumped over the bridge,” Dombrowski said.

Callers concerned about Sutherland standing at the bridge railing started coming in to a police dispatcher at about 2:20 p.m. Thursday, he said.

Dombrowski said he approached Sutherland at about 2:45 p.m. to ask how he was doing.

It was little more than hour before a police dispatcher received the first call at 3:51 p.m. Thursday that a man had jumped from the 98-foot-tall span.

Dombrowski said he saw Sutherland’s older-model white Subaru station wagon parked at the curb just west of the bridge.

He was dressed in gray jeans and a gray flannel shirt and, Dombrowski said, was casually smoking a cigarette.

“It was just a social contact because he was standing there,” Dombrowski recalled Friday.

“The first words out of my mouth were, ‘How are you doing? I’m just here to see if you’re OK.’

“He was very relaxed. He was smoking. He said yeah, he was just enjoying the view.

“We talked about our mutual fear of heights and that he was getting over his.”

The bridges that span the Tumwater gorge and Valley Creek gorge on Eighth Street have 4-foot, 6-inch-high barriers to protect pedestrians.

“It’s not that difficult to get over the railing,” Dombrowski said.

The heavily traveled Tumwater Truck Route was closed in both directions for more than an hour.

It was blocked both northbound and southbound by police vehicles at U.S. Highway 101 and Tumwater, at West Lauridsen Boulevard and Tumwater, and at Marine Drive where Tumwater ends.

Police closed the southbound lane of the truck route until 5 p.m. and the northbound lane until 5:30 p.m..

Sutherland’s body was covered with a white sheet while vehicles passed.

Dombrowski said it was important to open the road.

“You’ve got competing interests you have to juggle,” he said. “We have a scene we have to process.”

Dombrowski said toxicology results will be conducted on Sutherland’s body but that an autopsy is unlikely.

He said there was no indication that Sutherland was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The original bridges, built in 1936, had 7-foot, 8-inch fences that were added in 1959 to the central areas of the spans to prevent suicide attempts.

Between December 1999 and August 2007 — when the first bridge was closed for replacement — two suicides occurred on the old bridges, both in 2000, according to police records.

The new bridges were completed in February 2009 in a $24.6 million project that did not include the higher barriers.

City officials considered and rejected installing suicide prevention measures on the bridges before and after they were built, citing the expense.

Four people leaped to their deaths from the bridges in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2015, and now a fifth in 2017.

In a three-week period between April and May 2009 — two months after the bridges reopened — two men attempted suicide, one threatened suicide and a man leaped to his death, according to police records.

In July 2012, a 20-year-old Port Angeles woman jumped to her death from the Tumwater bridge.

That same year, a city utility employee grabbed a person who was in the process of jumping off one of the bridges and prevented the death.

A 21-year-old Port Angeles woman jumped to her death from the Valley Creek Eighth Street bridge in October 2014.

Four months later, in March 2015, a 76-year-old woman leaped to her death from the Tumwater bridge.

The city of Port Angeles installed signs on the bridges with crisis hotline phone numbers to Peninsula Behavioral Health, located three blocks east of the spans, instead of proceeding forward with barriers.

A Port Angeles police officer talked a man off the rail of the Valley Creek Eighth Street bridge in Port Angeles on Sept. 13 after he left a suicide note at Peninsula Behavioral Health.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.