PORT ANGELES — A unanimous Port Angeles City Council has agreed to consider options for improved safety barriers to help prevent suicides at the Eighth Street bridges.
After hearing testimony from surviving family members and others troubled by recent deaths on the twin spans, council members took three votes Tuesday that could lead to higher railings or other safety features on the 100-foot-tall bridges over Valley and Tumwater creeks.
Seven people have jumped to their deaths from one of the two bridges since they reopened with 4-foot, 6-inch railings in 2009. Three of those deaths have occurred in the past five months.
“The babies are falling from the skies,” said Richard Wishart, whose 15-year-old daughter, Ashley Ann Wishart, died after leaping from the eastern Valley Creek bridge Nov. 13.
“They are landing on our neighbors’ backyards. Way too many people are suffering, from the paramedics to the families, the loved ones.
“This kind of carnage has got to stop.”
The council voted 7-0 to direct staff to prepare documents to add the safety barrier addition on the Eighth Street bridges to the city’s Capital Facilities Plan and to bring the documents to the next council meeting Dec. 5.
Doing so could help the city secure state funding for the project, Deputy Mayor Cherie Kidd said.
The council then voted to direct staff to evaluate engineering-based guardian options for the bridges, which include short-term and long-term options.
The idea is to install a taller barrier, fence, netting or other safety feature that could stop a suicide or bide time for a good Samaritan to intervene before a person leaps over the railing.
The council will discuss the options Dec. 5.
“We will get something done,” said Kidd, who made the first two motions and vowed to work with state Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, to secure funding for safety improvements.
The council then agreed to “have the city open its doors to collect funding” to help pay for safety barriers at the bridges.
Any money left over from the city-administered fundraiser would be earmarked for mental health, according to Councilwoman Sissi Bruch’s approved motion.
Fourteen speakers in the first public comment period — and nearly two dozen overall — urged the council to install suicide barriers at the bridges.
Wishart said the estimated $900,000 cost of a permanent solution is “chump change to save a life.”
“There is no money that you can put on a person’s life,” Wishart said.
“Please, do something, and do it now.”
Alexander Teel, who works with teenagers as a drug and alcohol counselor and conducts suicide risk assessments, said the risk had elevated “tremendously” since the bridges reopened.
“It used to be: ‘Maybe I’d take some pills. Maybe I would find my dad’s gun or do these different things,’ ” Teel told an overflow crowd of about 100.
“But now, almost 100 percent of the time, it’s: ‘If I was going to commit suicide, I would go to the Eighth Street bridge.’ ”
Teel told the audience that his sister, Stephanie Caldwell, took her own life by jumping off one of the Eighth Street bridges.
Caldwell died at the age of 21 in October 2014.
“I admire the courage of the [Wishart] family to get up and speak,” Teel said. “I haven’t been able to speak about it in public until now.
“And I can say this type of suicide, not to be callous towards any other type of suicide, but this type of suicide, when it’s off of the Eighth Street bridge, has a large effect on our community.”
Tammy Gregory of Port Angeles recalled stopping her vehicle to console a 15-year-old girl who was sobbing and looking over the railing over the Tumwater Creek gorge in April 2015.
“I hugged her tight and listened to her sob until the police arrived,” said Gregory, who was credited with saving the girl’s life.
A higher fence on the bridges won’t stop all suicides but “will give good Samaritans time to stop them, either with a hug or a tackle if need be,” Gregory said.
Gregory read a note from the person she stopped on the bridge 2½ years ago, who is now studying biology and zoology in college and plans to work with animals.
“Whatever it is, significant other, family issues, bullies, backstabbing friends, they are not worth your life,” the unnamed woman said.
Rather than suicide barriers, Al Oman of Port Angeles said he preferred the term “guardian screens.”
He proposed 6-foot-tall screens that would be placed on top of the existing wall.
“These guardian screens would be engineered to the highest standards and would be low maintenance and would last for many, many generations to come,” Oman said.
City Public Works Director Craig Fulton said the barriers or screens will be designed by a structural engineer.
Oman suggested that the city set up an account to allow citizens to make donations for bridge improvements.
“We all feel helpless as a community and we want to do something,” he said.
Sandy Royaltey, a substitute teacher from Port Angeles, said social media is having a profound impact on young teenagers.
“They live in the moment, and if you’re having a bad moment and a bad day and you decide that you just can’t take it, it’s so easy to walk on those bridges and just sit up there and decide that’s it,” Royaltey said.
“It’s so dangerous to have something that makes it so easy for them to make a bad decision in the moment. I feel like in a way, the way the bridges are now with 4-foot rails, it’s almost an attractive nuisance.”
City Community and Economic Development Director Nathan West told the council that staff would begin to work on the Eighth Street bridge issue immediately.
“This is something we’re not going to wait on,” West said.
“We care greatly about ensuring that the community sees progress.”
Later in the meeting, after a first reading of the proposed $108 million city budget, Councilman Dan Gase warned the remaining audience members that permanent improvements to the Eighth Street bridges could be delayed by permitting and strict state laws governing public bid requirements.
“While I want you to know that we’re trying full speed ahead, the process is such that it could take months and months and months before anything happens,” Gase said.
“That’s the state law that we’re working under.”
A woman shouted at Gase from the back of the council chambers, challenging him to volunteer to stand guard on one of the bridges as she does between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.
“Seven years,” the woman shouted before leaving the room.
“How many bodies? Seven years.”
Mayor Patrick Downie called the meeting to order.
“I appreciate the council’s willingness to look at options,” Downie said.
“It’s imperative that we do it logically, strategically and correctly.”
Earlier in the meeting, Kidd urged the audience members to “speak with one voice” in urging the state Legislature to help fund safety improvements at the Eighth Street bridges.
Kidd has advocated for taller barriers on the bridges since she joined the council in 2008.
She held up a notebook containing citizen correspondence on the issue and Ashley Wishart’s obituary.
“I have Ashley with me,” Kidd said.
“I’ve taken her to Olympia, and everywhere I go, and every one of your letters goes in Ashley’s notebook.
“We are all one family,” Kidd added. “We’re one community. And they’re all our children.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].