October 15, 2019
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Bill to install suicide prevention fence on Penobscot Narrows Bridge fails in committee

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
A view of the railing along the Penobscot Narrows Bridge.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Transportation Committee rejected a bill Tuesday afternoon that would have led to the installation of a suicide prevention fence on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge.

Rep. Beth Turner, R-Burlington, a member of the committee, said the unanimous “ought not to pass” recommendation was a reflection of the fact that the bill was presented to the Legislature just a few weeks ago and that lawmakers haven’t had enough time to evaluate it.

Rep. Joe Brooks, I-Winterport, who sponsored the bill just days after a Bucksport Middle School teacher died after jumping from the bridge in February, reacted to the vote with anger.

“I was very upset by the outcome. This goes nowhere in an attempt to save lives,” said Brooks Tuesday afternoon. “Often a good way to get rid of a proposed bill is to assign it to a committee and that’s just what they’ve done. It will be quickly forgotten. … I needed at least one vote to bring it to the floor to debate it and I didn’t get it. That’s very disappointing.”

One issue of concern, according to Turner, is that there are high bridges all over Maine and building a suicide prevention fence on one could lead to calls for more. Turner said the committee will write a letter to the Department of Transportation requesting an analysis of the issue — including solutions ranging from a fence to an emergency phone to more lighting — and a report back to the Legislature in January.

According to Brooks, the bridge connecting Prospect and Verona Island over the Penobscot River has been the scene of six suicide jumps since it opened in December 2006, including a 14-year-old Stockton Springs boy in 2008, Robert Carlson, a Bangor-area minister in 2011, and a 25-year-old Eddington man and 51-year-old Holden man in 2013. Police also talked a distressed father off the Penobscot Narrows Bridge on Father’s Day in 2013. The bridge that preceded it, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge, was also the site of numerous suicide attempts over the years.

The cost of building the fence on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge was estimated at between $500,000 and $1 million.

The project is not without precedent. In 1983, the state installed an 11-foot-tall safety fence on the Memorial Bridge in Augusta, which had been the site of 14 suicides in 22 years. That fence was removed for about a year for bridge maintenance and it cost the city of Augusta about $350,000 to put it back.

Greg Marley, senior manager of education support at NAMI Maine, said the fence has been a complete success. Since it was erected, there have been no suicides on Memorial Bridge. He cited a 2006 study called “Preventing Suicide By Jumping: The Effect of a Bridge Safety Fence,” which 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.

“If there are other bridges in Maine that are considered suicide hot spots, I don’t know where they are,” said Brooks. “This is the one we needed to work on, but that’s gone for the time being.”

Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport, who is also the Searsport town manager and whose legislative district contains the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, is a member of the Transportation Committee who voted against the bill, according to Brooks. Gillway could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

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