BUCKSPORT, Maine — The woman brought flowers and candles, sorrow and love with her Monday on a pilgrimage to the eastbound lane of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge.
She was pulled there by a current of sadness for the sudden, shocking death of the Rev. Robert Carlson, whom police believe jumped from the bridge deck high above the dark Penobscot River during the early morning hours on Sunday.
She also was drawn by a special link with the local leader and pastor who had saved her life a year before apparently taking his own. The woman, who didn’t want to be identified, said that at a dark moment in her life she contemplated jumping off the bridge herself. She figured that during the unimaginable moments before falling into the river 150 feet below there would be time to ask God forgiveness for taking her own life.
But she didn’t jump. Some teenage boys were hanging around talking to her and she didn’t want to commit that act in front of them. She left and called Carlson, who said the young men were angels sent by God to stop her from committing suicide.
“I’m having a very hard time now, because he did exactly what I was going to do,” she said. “But I know for a fact he’s in heaven.”
She, like many others in Greater Bangor, had kind words for Carlson.
“I got better, because of him. He got me through my hard time,” she said, adding that she had cried her own river of tears after learning of his death on Sunday. “Even though it probably wasn’t wise to drive to the bridge, my love for him was stronger. I had to bring those flowers. I had to bring those candles. All I thought was love for him. And deep, deep sadness.”
One thing they had discussed the year before was her certainty that jumping off this bridge was a sure way to die. But police said Monday that is not necessarily the case and they would like would-be jumpers to know that.
On Aug. 20, a 34-year-old man from Frankfort jumped from the bridge late at night. Responding officials began their search for his body, just as they had done twice before for people who died after plunging into the river.
But as they went to the river’s edge, they were shocked to hear a man yelling from the water. It was the jumper, and although he broke several bones, he survived, according to Lt. Jason Trundy of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office.
That wasn’t the case for 17-year-old Harrison Damon of Orland, who apparently walked out of school one snowy day in 2007 and jumped or slipped from the bridge. His remains were found by police downstream several months later. It also wasn’t the case for a Searsport District High School freshman who jumped from the bridge in October 2008. The body of Mark Thomas Jr. of Stockton Springs wasn’t found until 2010, police said.
Last March, a parole officer driving across the bridge saw a man who appeared to be about to jump. The parole officer, Bob Cartier, stopped his car and wrestled the man down.
“He stopped him from jumping,” Trundy said.
Maine Department of Transportation spokesperson Nina Fisher said Monday that the bridge, which was completed at the end of 2006, has no “anti-suicide fence,” or net, around it. That would have added $1 million to its cost, she said,
The Department of Transportation has built such a fence only once in the last 35 years. That was in the 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.
Fisher said the Penobscot Narrows Bridge has a 42-inch-high railing which gives protection against accidental tumbles.
“You’re not going to fall over, walking across it, by any means,” she said. “You have to be physically attempting to get over it and jump.”
The bridge does have security cameras, including a 24-hour webcam, but none are focused on the bridge deck, Fisher said.
She pointed out that suicidal people can be persistent.
“If it hadn’t been the bridge, he would have found another way,” she said. “Would a suicide fence have saved his life?”
But the news of Carlson’s death has been sad and upsetting to many in her department who also are concerned about his family.
“For a lot of our staff, it hits home for them,” she said. “It’s a beautiful structure. You don’t want it to be the last place someone was living.”
The woman on the bridge said she knows that Carlson had time to tell God that he was sorry for jumping and that she will see him again in heaven.
“I loved him like a father,” she said. “I will not go to the funeral. I do not want to remember him in a casket. I want to remember the last time I saw him. When that man hugged you, I thought, this must be what it’s like to grow up with a father who loves you. That’s how I’m going to remember him.”