While always a concern locally, bridge jumping suicides are rare

Officials with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge just approved a $76 million funding package to build a suicide barrier to prevent people from jumping off the edge, a common occurrence there. But local law enforcement officials said they are pleased that with all the bridges criss-crossing the rivers and creeks throughout Washington County, local occurrences are fairly rare.

Only a few cases of confirmed jumps or attempted jumps have been noted in the county over the past several years.

From the pedestrian bridge that stretches east to west across the Muskingum River to the heavily-trafficked Williamstown and Belpre bridges that cross into West Virginia, law enforcement say they are always prepared to talk desperate individuals down to safety.

“If it does happen, we have special negotiators that will talk to people, but we also have deputies that are good at that every day,” said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks. “We have verbal cues that we use, and the deputies will try to get them to comply.”

In July 2012, a 62-year-old man was thwarted by law enforcement after trying to jump off the Harmar Railroad Bridge, and a 37-year-old man and 67-year-old man were both stopped from jumping off the Williamstown Bridge in 2010 and 2009, respectively.

“It doesn’t happen very often, but we have had it happen in the past,” said Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite. “We respond to it, and the officers will typically talk them down to safety.”

Mincks said the cases are rarely criminal, and if anything the jumper is charged with disorderly conduct.

“If they want to jump, they have something wrong with them,” he said. “We’re more interested in getting them to the hospital and getting them treatment.”

Waite said officers will do what they have to do to get the person down, but mostly any action taken by police is to negotiate with the person, rather than frightening them any further.

Miriam Keith of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board said many statistics about actions like bridge jumping are difficult to track, and a lot of the times are left to memory.

“It only gets counted if it’s the cause of death,” she said. “For every jump completed, there are several more not counted.”

Mincks said he did recall when a man jumped from the Washington Street bridge in 2004, and remembered the first responders who dove into the wintry cold river and rescued him.

“It’s a tough call each time, and it’s always based on individual circumstances,” Waite said.

For a civilian witnessing someone threatening to jump, Waite said it should always be the first priority to call law enforcement.

“You could help save somebody, but you could also irritate them further by talking about it,” he said. “I wouldn’t say not to do it, but just to exercise caution.”

Keith said one of the biggest risks for a civilian trying to intervene is that they might further agitate the individual.

“Don’t ask them for their life story, because that might remind them of why they’re doing this, but talk calmly,” she said. “I think the average person on the street should try to not be too freaked out or frantic, and if they can’t call for help, find someone who can.”

Waite said there is no substantial evidence supporting the idea that jumping is more likely to occur in summer, but several of the attempts in Washington County throughout the past five years took place in spring and summer.

In June 2009, Robert D. McKay, 76, of Parkersburg, died after jumping from the Belpre Bridge, an event assumed to have been cause by Alzheimer’s disease.

“It all goes back to mental health first aid,” Keith said. “There’s no guarantee that it will work, but we do know to give them reassurance, and to tell them you’re there.”