Taos Bridge renovations won't include hampers to jumpers

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A planned $2.6 million renovation of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in Taos won't include structural changes to prevent suicides.

According to the Department of Transportation, proposals to directly address jumpers — including higher fencing and a net extending beneath the bridge — are costly, and the look of the bridge can't be altered because of it is on both state and national registers of historic places.

"It's a very, very sensitive issue for everyone involved," said DOT spokesperson Roseanne Rodriguez. "It's definitely a bad situation, and it's been brought to light on several occasions and they've made action to do something. This (the feasibility study) is as far as it's gone at this time."

Which isn't far enough for Taos Volunteer Fire Chief Jim Fambro, who once recovered two jumpers' bodies from the Rio Grande Gorge in the same day, and has recovered "at least 100? jumpers' bodies in Taos since 1984.

"I don't care about their aesthetics," he said. "I'll show them aesthetics— the pictures of these bodies we pull out from down there. We've had over 100 people jump off this bridge, and no one wants to do a damn thing about it? Give me a break."

Late last month, 19-year-old Samantha Salazar of Arroyo Hondo jumped to her death off the bridge. Hers was the fourth suicide there this year, Fambro said, and the seventh in the last 10 months.

His worst personal experience with a jumper, he said, was when he spent 30 minutes trying to talk a woman named Alicia Lauritzen off the ledge in 1996.

"They're all unfortunate, but that's the worst one," he said. "I had eye contact with her all the way down before she hit."

Laura Rowland, executive director New Mexico Suicide Prevention Coalition, has been lobbying for years to put a barrier on the bridge. She said numerous studies have shown that any impediment to jumpers will vastly decrease the rate of suicide off a high bridge, or even eliminate the problem entirely.

"When an individual is suicidal, they're in a tunnel-vision state of mind," she said. "They have a process of what's they're going to do and how they're going to do it. When they get there and see the process isn't as easy and planned-out as they thought, it changes. It breaks the tunnel vision."

She added: "We need that bridge barrier. We know it'll save lives — as well as protect firefighters."

Fambro said no firefighters have been injured retrieving bodies, but the process can be so difficult he's afraid it may only be a matter of time before that happens. Workers have to raft to the body, he said, because state police stopped loaning their helicopters. Sometimes, Rio Grande's rapids are difficult to navigate, other times there's little water at all and retrieval can be a daylong job.

"I don't want to go through that anymore," Fambro said.

Said Rowland: "What they recover is gruesome and unbearable."

While no one at the DOT who spoke with the Journal will entirely rule out a suicide barrier, the study released earlier this year makes it sound all but impossible. A state Senate memorial passed in 2009 requested a study for different types of barriers. The only viable option that the report came up with was to do nothing.

"Any of these alternatives would add weight to the existing bridge, and the bridge is very, very old," said the DOT's Rodriguez. The bridge was finished in 1965.

Maintenance work set to begin soon, including new bearings and replacement concrete, she said, "is just to keep it safe for the traveling public."

Commenting on the suicides, Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, said "the trend seems to be elevating" and vowed to introduce legislation during the winter session to address the problem.

Rowland said her group is "hoping for something in the legislation that tells the Department of Transportation to pick an option and get it done." She said the option of a net to catch jumpers wouldn't impact any views and wouldn't add much weight to the bridge. "I don't buy that the bridge can't support something," Fambro said. "There's lighter metals, and I think the state could help us with this if they really wanted to."

Cisneros wants to find funding for the project and implement any solution possible. If it isn't a barrier, he said, it may be something like adding a guard at the bridge to monitor for jumpers.

"We really need to see if there's anything to do and come up with options to stop suicidal jumps from the bridge in whatever manner we can," he said. "If we can't, we can't. But we've got to do something."

Rowland said studies have shown that people deterred from jumping to their deaths don't find other means of killing themselves.

"The majority of people in a suicidal crisis who have their crisis interrupted and intervened go on and live their lives and die of natural causes," she said.