By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: May 11, 2008
SIGNS on the Tappan Zee Bridge tell motorists, “Life Is Worth Living.” They direct people to suicide hot lines on the span, where above each callbox another sign reads, “When it seems like there is no hope, there is help.”
But since they were installed in August, the four phones have yet to be used by anyone contemplating suicide. Despite the efforts of the New York State Thruway Authority, which manages the Tappan Zee, the bridge continues to be a lure for would-be jumpers. April was the worst month in the recent memory of authority officials. Three people leapt to their deaths from the bridge, two within one hour of each other. A fourth person was talked down from the railing.
The rash of suicides has led the authority to consider whether to take further steps to address the problem. Officials are now considering whether bridge maintenance workers, tow truck operators and others, who are often the first on the scene of a potential suicide, should be trained in how to handle such situations.
“Those are the people who have their eyes and ears on the bridge all the time,” said Ramesh Mehta, a division director of the authority.
Nonetheless, Mr. Mehta said, the authority was unsure whether bridge workers should be counted on to intervene in such situations. He said that the state police and emergency workers, who are called to the scene of potential suicides, already receive such training.
Thirty people have leapt to their deaths from the Tappan Zee Bridge in the last 10 years; others have been talked down, and a handful have been rescued from the water.
Bridge workers come across potential suicides in the course of their everyday duties. Sometimes they arrive just in time to grab someone around the waist and pull him or her back to safety. Other times, they try to talk the person down.
On April 24, a Thruway Authority electrician came upon a suicidal man at a railing. The electrician told the man that he had problems of his own, showed him family photos and implored him not to jump. Eventually the man was lifted over the railing and back to safety.
Ernie Feeney, a tow truck operator for the authority, has dealt with four suicidal people in the last four years. He has saved three people, but the man he lost still haunts him. A few years ago, Mr. Feeney said, he approached a man standing in front of his stopped car on the bridge, which at its peak rises about 150 feet above the Hudson River. He assumed that the man had a flat tire or had run out of gas.
“I pulled in front of him, and I asked, ‘What’s wrong with your car?’ ” Mr. Feeney said. “And all he says to me was, ‘Tell my brother the keys are on the front seat.’ And I said, ‘Well, what’s wrong with the car?’ And he went to jump.”
Mr. Feeney grabbed the man but lost his grip when his own arm hit the railing.
Compounding the problem for bridge workers is the fact that the suicide hot lines are positioned at either end of the span, but people tend to jump from the middle of the three-mile-long bridge. But Mr. Mehta said that installing boxes in the middle of the bridge would endanger other motorists.
April and May are the peak months for suicides, said Gary L. Spielmann, former director of suicide prevention for the New York State Office of Mental Health and now a consultant to the New York State Bridge Authority. He said that the Tappan Zee happens to connect two counties with the lowest annual suicide rates in New York State. (Westchester has a suicide rate of 4.0 per 100,000 residents; Rockland’s is 2.6.)
Mr. Spielmann speculated that at this point, “the notoriety of the bridge may be feeding on itself.”
He said that educating people on simple changes in the use of language could sometimes prevent a suicide. For instance, “help is on the way” is far less threatening to a suicidal person than “the police have been called.”
Mr. Spielmann said he had sympathy for Thruway Authority workers and officials.
“Given the situation, I hope they take the opportunity for training,” he said.