June 23, 2018
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Suicide attempts spur bridge safety concern

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
The Joshua Chamberlain Bridge in Bangor. (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the death of Cory Grenier of Old Town. His body was first spotted on an embankment on the Brewer side of the Penobscot River on Nov. 13 by his father, Robert Grenier of Milford, according to Cory’s stepmother, Amy Grenier. Authorities have determined that Cory Grenier died by drowning, but the manner of his death is still under investigation. There has been no suggestion by authorities that he jumped from a bridge. The story also misspelled Grenier’s first name.

BANGOR, Maine — The three bridges that span the Penobscot River connecting Bangor and Brewer have always been a public safety concern.

To start, the bridges see a lot of foot traffic. They also are directly accessible from downtown. And the barriers that keep pedestrians from toppling into the frigid waters below are only about 4 feet high.

For the desperate, the bridges can beckon, and in recent weeks Bangor’s bridges have seen some high-profile suicide attempts.

On Nov. 4, witnesses saw a person jump from the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge. The person is believed to be William Hilderbrand, 22, of Bangor. Despite extended search efforts by police and family members, Hilderbrand has not been found.

Earlier this month, the body of an Old Town man was pulled from the Penobscot River on the Brewer side near Maine Motel Supply.

“It certainly appears to be more of a problem lately,” Police Chief Ron Gastia said. “Is it an anomaly or an upward trend, we don’t know. Certainly if this keeps up, we’ll have to explore all possibilities to keep the public safe.”

Police Sgt. Paul Edwards said that because of the way the department categorizes its calls, he couldn’t find statistics on the number of bridge jumpers. According to reports published in the Bangor Daily News in the past decade, there have been more jumpers in 2010 — four — than any other year. The previous high was two, both in 2008 and 2001. In four of the past 10 years, there was none.

“If there is any trend, it’s probably that more people are jumping rather than threatening to jump,” Edwards said.

However, even if the city wanted to take steps to improve safety, it is not as simple as it sounds.

Only once in at least the past 35 years has the Maine Department of Transportation installed what are known as “anti-suicide” fences, which curve outward toward the road and away from the bridge, making them nearly impossible to scale. That was in the late 1970s and involved the Memorial Bridge in Augusta, which had been the site of several suicides connected directly to the nearby Augusta Mental Health Institute.

“I think it would be up to the state because they own the bridge,” Gastia said of any changes to Bangor’s bridges. “I’m not sure if that’s something we would pursue or wait for them.”

Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the state gets requests periodically from municipalities to install anti-suicide fences. The answer is always no, which Latti realizes sounds callous.

“There are several reasons why we say no,” he said. “One is the expense. To retrofit a bridge with a fence like that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Another is the safety of these fences, which generally diminish sight lines for traffic and can hinder snow removal. And there are still questions about how effective these fences are.”

The threat is often greater than the reality, Gastia said, and Bangor is not alone in its concerns over potential bridge jumpers. Any community with a bridge likely shares the same fears.

The Waldo-Hancock Bridge across the mouth of the Penobscot River near Bucksport frequently was the site of suicide attempts. When Maine Department of Transportation officials replaced the span with the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory, pedestrian safety was discussed at length, but no special fencing was installed.

Earlier this year, the body of a teenage boy who reportedly jumped from the bridge in October 2008 was recovered.

Nationally, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has long been the subject of debate because of the high number of jumpers.

Safety will always be a concern, but in some ways police can do only so much. If you fence off all the bridges, some people will find another way.

Gastia said his officers are well-trained to talk potential jumpers off the ledge.

“There are a fair number who threaten, but we usually don’t get as many who actually jump,” he said. “In many cases, our officers respond in time to talk them out of it.”

Last December, Bangor Police Officer Rob Angelo spent nearly a half-hour trying to talk a woman out of jumping from the Penobscot Bridge. When she finally agreed to step away from the bridge railing, her feet slipped on the narrow beam suspended above the river. She dangled by her hands.

Angelo, who was several feet away, saw her slip and lunged toward her. He grabbed her hands and held her until other officers assisted to pull her to safety.

Gastia said intervention is typically an officer’s only chance to save a life.

“If they have a quick change of mind, it’s too late. There is no chance for us to get them. The water is swift. It’s not like we can send an officer in after them,” he said.

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