AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal to build a suicide-prevention fence on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge will go before the Legislature this session.
Rep. Joe Brooks, I-Winterport, proposed the bill Wednesday as an effort to prevent people from committing suicide by jumping from it. The Legislative Council approved the bill for consideration in a unanimous vote without debate on Thursday.
“The fence provides that one opportunity where we can rescue somebody,” Brooks said Thursday.
Since the bridge between Prospect and Verona was opened in 2007, at least six people have ended their lives by leaping the roughly 450 feet from the span to the Penobscot River below, including a fifth-grade teacher who police say jumped from the bridge over the weekend.
The only bridge in the state with a “suicide prevention fence” is the Memorial Bridge over the Kennebec River in Augusta, which was the site of 14 suicides in the 22 years before the fence was built in 1983. There have been no suicides since.
A 2006 study called “Preventing Suicide By Jumping: The Effect of a Bridge Safety Fence,” showed that in the 22 years before and after the fence was built, the number of suicides in Augusta by jumping from great heights other than Memorial Bridge stayed constant — nine in each 22-year period.
The study’s author, Andrew Pelletier, gathered data from multiple sources, including death certificates from the State Office of Vital Records, newspaper reports and state medical examiner records.
“The number of suicides related to jumping from other structures in Augusta remained unchanged after installation of the fence, suggesting that suicidal individuals did not seek alternative sites,” Pelletier wrote.
At the time of the fence’s construction in Augusta, opponents raised concern about the cost and the potential aesthetic detriment. Memorial Bridge offers sweeping views of the Kennebec River and the Capitol Dome.
Meanwhile, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge features an observatory and is a major tourist attraction. It is one of the most-photographed structures in the state.
Brooks said he expects the project will cost more than $1 million, but said it’s worth it to save even one life. As for aesthetics, he said he’s convinced a fence could be done in a way that wouldn’t hurt the bridge’s appearance.
“I think there may be merit [to that concern] from the tourists perspective, but not from those of us in the area who know the victims,” he said.
The bill’s language will now be drafted. It will likely be considered by the Transportation Committee before hitting the full Legislature sometime after March 7.
To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.