The Eighth Street bridge over Valley Creek in Port Angeles will be the site of a celebration of the installation of suicide barriers tonight. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

The Eighth Street bridge over Valley Creek in Port Angeles will be the site of a celebration of the installation of suicide barriers tonight. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Suicide barriers draw praise in Port Angeles

PORT ANGELES — Two fathers with painful connections to the Eighth Street bridges lauded the recent addition of suicide barriers along the 100-foot-tall spans.

Randy Henry’s 31-year-old son, Joseph, leaped from the bridge over the Tumwater Truck Route on Oct. 4, 2017.

About five weeks later, on Nov. 7, Richard Wishart’s 15-year-old daughter, Ashley, jumped from the bridge over the South Valley Street three blocks east of where Joseph Henry fell to his death.

They were among the eight people who have died by suicide from the bridges since the spans were completed in February 2009 with 4-foot, 6-inch high railings.

The new barriers, 8 feet, 8 inches to 10 feet, 7 inches tall, vary in height because of curved, chain-link fencing and are spiked at the top.

Completion of the $771,000 project last week will be celebrated beginning at 5:30 p.m. today.

City Council member and former Mayor Cherie Kidd has termed the event a “block party” on Eighth Street between Cherry and South Pine streets that organizers said will thank the community for its support.

Wishart said Tuesday he believes “100 percent” that the new barriers would have stopped his daughter from dying and will help save others as well.

“Ashley was just out of reach of someone trying to save her,” the Port Angeles resident said.

“Had she had to climb a fence, they would have been able to grab her leg.”

After his daughter died, Wishart said he talked to a lawyer about suing the city for not erecting the fences when city leaders had their chance.

“That was my ultimatum, that the city do something,” Wishart said.

“[Residents] had been requesting for years, prior to Ashley jumping, to do that.

“It was falling on deaf ears.”

City leaders twice rejected higher barriers as too expensive.

The first time was when the bridges were replaced a decade ago with railings shorter than those that had been added to the spans.

The second was in 2014, when the City Council decided against higher barriers, opting instead for signs with a suicide hotline phone number after Stephanie Diane Caldwell, 21, became the third person to die by suicide from the bridges over the previous five years.

Wishart was taken by the recent turn of events.

“Now the city has done something, and I’m impressed by them and the citizens of the community,” he said.

Funding for the new fencing includes $124,000 in community funds made up of individual donations that were boosted by $100,000 from the John David Crow family and $10,000 from First Federal.

An additional $350,000 in state funding was secured with the help of the 24th District’s state legislative delegation.

Wishart still avoids driving over the bridges even though they connect the east and west sides of the city but might attend this evening’s event “and give thanks to them for stepping up and getting it done,” he said.

It wasn’t until Ashley Wishart died that Randy Henry changed his mind about the barriers.

“I think it’s a good idea, now, and will keep people definitely from jumping off those two bridges,” he said Monday.

“I still don’t understand and would like to know why the past City Council that built the new bridges didn’t put the barriers up.

“I think they were more into the aesthetics of the bridges and didn’t want them, didn’t think they would be as pleasing to the eye if they had the barriers.”

Henry won’t attend the celebration.

“A party is a stupid idea,” he said.

West Eighth Street will be closed to traffic from Cherry Street to Pine Street from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The event will include an opening prayer by Pastor Thomas Steffen of the First United Methodist Church at 5:30 p.m.

Kidd will join Marc Abshire, Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director, as emcees.

The event grew out of a chamber workshop in June titled “For the Love of Port Angeles,” Abshire said Monday.

“People liked the idea of doing something to celebrate safer bridges,” he said.

First Federal and 1st Security Bank, which is remodeling its Port Angeles branch, “will be giving away freebies,” Kidd said.

From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., the Seattle bluegrass band The Weavils will be the final act in the chamber’s Concerts on the Pier summer series.

“We are just going to have a good community block party,” Kidd said Tuesday.

“Putting up our fences is like putting our arms around each other to keep us safe,” she said, paraphrasing an email she received from a Port Angeles resident.

Suicide barriers have proven to be an effective preventive measure, “but it’s not a total safeguard against suicide,” Kidd cautioned.

“Nothing is 100 percent, but we have a responsibility to our citizens to do everything we can that is a logically and practically available option, and we have done that.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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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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