The bridge's long shadow

Too many preventable deaths prompt questions

 

Here's why we are breaking convention

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More people jump to their deaths from the Lions Gate Bridge than any other bridge in the province.

It's not something that is discussed and you won't typically find it reported in this paper for good reasons. But it is a sad - and repeated - reality.

Those who jump to their deaths are often young, people who are just starting on their lives. Their deaths are tragedies, not just for their families, but also for the wider community. Alarmed by those statistics, five years ago the B.C. Coroner's Service recommended that high barriers or netting be installed on several Lower Mainland bridges.

Since then, at least 28 more people have ended their lives on the Lions Gate.

We think those deaths - and the debate about barriers that would prevent such deaths - need to be discussed, as a matter of urgent public interest. This week and next, we feature a two-part story which addresses that. It is difficult subject matter. On page 9, we have included information for anyone who needs help.

And a warning: some readers may find details contained in this story disturbing.

• • •

On a bright winter day, the North Shore mountains rise in a dramatic backdrop to the graceful arcs of the Lions Gate Bridge. To the west are freighters at anchor in English Bay, a fog bank low in the distance.

In the 75 years that the bridge has stood, this has been its picture postcard image. But there is another part of the bridge's history that is dark and full of anguish.

It was a day in mid-December three years ago, when Rio Bond, 26, jumped to her death from the Lions Gate Bridge.

It was a Saturday, early afternoon. A woman driving into Vancouver that day saw her jump but didn't have a cellphone. She drove to the nearest gas station and called 9-1-1. A marine rescue crew was dispatched.

Later, the crew told Rio's family they did their best to save her. Their efforts and the 9-1-1 call are among the few acts of compassion that Rio's mother, Lou Guest, can point to in the memory of that horrific day.

"It could have happened and she'd disappear and we'd just never know," said Guest.

The burden of what she knows weighs heavy.

In the three years since her daughter died, Guest has felt the long stares of acquaintances who don't know what to say.

She has had people ask how she is, and answered unflinchingly.

"Just imagine if your child died at 26. Suddenly they got sick or were run over by a car. That's how I feel. Except my guilt is more than yours will ever be."

She is angry and heartbroken. "I'm not the same person I was," she said.

She is tortured by the thought there is something she could have done.

More people jump to their deaths from the Lions Gate Bridge each year than any other bridge in the province. They continue to do so despite a recommendation more than five years ago from the B.C. Coroners Service to retrofit the five bridges where people most commonly jump to their deaths with some kind of suicide barrier or netting.

In 22 years between 1991 and 2013, government statistics point to 78 people ending their lives on the Lions Gate Bridge.

For the families of those who have died, the bridge remains a painful reminder of their loss.

Growing up in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast, Rio - the only child of Guest and her husband Neil Bond - was "incredibly funny, mischievous, bright, kind. She was a much better person than I am," said Guest.

"She was at the top of the honour roll, all the way from elementary to high school," said Bond.

She was also bipolar, a diagnosis made when she was 17.

Rio's mental health deteriorated quickly. Her mother remembers how she seemed different after she came back from a foreign exchange trip between grades 11 and 12.

She didn't sleep. She didn't understand jokes other kids told in high school. She got drunk. She stole her father's truck. "She would come into my bedroom in the middle of the night and lay on the floor and start talking," said Guest. She started failing classes.

Her parents took her to the doctor, thinking Rio was depressed. She was given an anti-depressant. Within three days she was in hospital suffering full-blown psychosis.

Doctors at UBC's psychosis intervention unit told her parents that Rio was a "rapid cycler" - one of the most difficult forms of bipolar to manage. "She'd go from depression to mania in the flip of a switch," said Bond.

"They would come maybe twice a year, the bad episodes," he said.

She was put on an unending series of drugs, in the hopes of finding one that would work without incapacitating side effects.

For years, Guest slept with the phone in her hand, her clothes ready for the call that would inevitably come, telling her Rio was in trouble.

Out of the last eight years of her life, Rio was hospitalized for two.

"Her mother and I were always hoping that around the corner there was going to be something that was going to help Rio. There was going to be a new drug or something that would help her and she would survive all this," said Bond. "It was tough."

More than once, Bond recalls saying to his daughter, "Don't do anything foolish.

"She said, 'Dad, I'd never do anything like that.'"

Guest said the days leading up to Rio's death were "terribly deceptive."

Both parents talked to their daughter on the phone in the days before she died.

Guest talked to Rio that same day. "I said, 'I'm thinking of coming in.

Should I come tomorrow or Monday?' "She sounded really weird, far away and distant and vague," said Guest. At the time, however, Rio was living in Venture House, housing run by Vancouver Coastal Health for people with mental health problems that was staffed by health professionals. "I thought they'd figure it out," said Guest. "I thought she was safe."

Guest said it must have been right after they talked that Saturday that Rio walked out of Venture House. "At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, she was on the bridge."

Afterwards, nobody called her parents to tell them what had happened.

Guest got up on Sunday, and took the ferry and the bus into town. She had a bag of treats for her daughter with her, thinking they'd go for coffee or a walk like they usually did.

It wasn't until she walked into the door of her daughter's housing that a doctor grabbed her by the arm and said, "Rio committed suicide."

"I said, 'Can I see her?'" "They said 'She's in the morgue.'. .. They might as well have killed me."

She phoned her husband. Her niece from the North Shore came to get her and drove her home, back across the bridge.

• • •

Between 2006 and 2012, 33 people jumped to their deaths from the Lions Gate Bridge, according to statistics provided by the B.C. Coroners Service. That is about twice the number who jumped from the Pattullo (18) or the Alex Fraser (14).

Over the past two decades, numbers for those who have jumped to their deaths from the Granville Street Bridge, the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing and the Burrard Street Bridge are also shockingly high.

Coroners reports into these deaths are a sad record of loss, some so brief they could be a haiku to those who ended their lives this way.

A report on a 22-year-old Vancouver man who jumped from the Lions Gate lists the place of death as "water beneath Lions Gate Bridge" and the immediate cause of death as "blunt force trauma and drowning."

One man pushed himself back off the east side of the bridge as a West Vancouver police officer approached in a police car. His body was found on the cement platform below. The report listed his cause of death as "multiple severe deceleration injuries with multiple bone fractures."

The body of one 16 year-old boy was found on wet ground below the bridge on a February morning. His jeans had been split open and his shoes and been knocked off from the force of hitting the ground. He had been reported missing a day earlier after he didn't come home from school. A letter was found at a friend's house, written in the past tense.

A class counsellor at his school told the coroner none of his friends remembered him being depressed. "All are shocked by his actions," the coroner wrote.

Most people who kill themselves by jumping from a bridge in B.C. are young. The highest percentage - making up almost 27 per cent - are between 20 and 29 years old.

That's part of what prompted the Child Death Review unit of the B.C.

Coroners Service to sound the alarm on bridge suicides in a 2008 report and recommend that five Metro Vancouver bridges (the Lions Gate, Ironworkers, Granville Street, Pattullo and Burrard Street bridges) be refitted with high barriers.

"These children and youth were sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, nieces and nephew, grandchildren and cousins. .. they were the kid down the street and captain of the hockey team," wrote the authors in the introduction to their report on child and youth suicide.

Restricting access to "lethal means" can make the difference between a death and an opportunity to help a distressed individual, the authors wrote, "and is considered one of the most effective universal approaches to suicide prevention."

When it comes to bridges, "evidence indicates that physical safety barriers or safety nets on bridges significantly reduces suicides by jumping from those locations... ." the report concludes.

There are plenty of studies both in North America and around the world to show that safety barriers work. Suicide rates at almost all jumping sites where barriers have been installed have fallen dramatically. In 2004, barriers were installed on the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal following recommendations from the Bureau du Coroner in Quebec after 143 people jumped to their deaths between 1996 and 2001. In Toronto, a barrier known as the Luminous Veil was installed in 2003 on the Bloor Street Viaduct - up until that time, North America's second most notorious suicide bridge - at a cost of $5.5 million. Suicides went from an average of nine a year at the viaduct to zero, although the overall suicide rate in Toronto did not decrease.

One question that's always surrounded the debates on bridge safety barriers has been whether those prevented from jumping are actually saved or simply find another means to end their lives.

Those who have studied the issue over the past 30 years say the results are conclusive - deterring people saves lives.

Suicide attempts often come in response to "overwhelming emotional pain," along with "hopelessness that things would ever get better," said David Klonsky, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, who has studied the issue.

But those emotions ebb and flow "like any other powerful emotion," he said. "If you can get that person to survive that period, there's a good chance that the next day, things will be a little bit better."

One famous study tracked more than 500 people who were prevented from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco for 30 years, and found 90 per cent of them went on to live normal lives and did not die by suicide.

"Barriers are very important," said Klonsky.

Attitudes to safety barriers have slowly been changing. Inclusion of higher safety barriers is now a consideration in the design of new bridges in B.C. So far, the Golden Ears Bridge across the Fraser River is the only bridge in Metro Vancouver built with higher barriers. The North Shore's Ironworkers Memorial Bridge across the Second Narrows will be the first of the older bridges to get a higher barrier installed. That will be included as part of a sidewalk widening project on the bridge slated to start this month and finish in 2015.

As part of that project a new safety fence three metres high featuring heavygauge vertical steel bars will replace the outside bridge railing. The cost of the project - including the new sidewalks and lateral bracing required to strengthen the bridge - is $20 million.

Ian Ross, the longtime executive director of the Vancouver Crisis Centre, applauds that move. His organization has long been pushing for high barriers on

local bridges - including the Lions Gate.

"It's starting with the Second Narrows. Eventually we should have barriers everywhere," he said. "One is better than none."

Both the Lions Gate and Second Narrows bridges have been a focus for the debate about suicide barriers because of their high volume of pedestrian traffic.

Currently, cameras that monitor the Lions Gate Bridge around the clock from an operations headquarters, plus six yellow crisis phones - three on either side of the bridge - are relied on to deter suicide attempts.

The phones were installed on both North Shore bridges starting in 2009 at a cost of about $60,000.

Ross said the crisis line averages two calls a month from the two bridges. Four times as many calls come from the Lions Gate as the Second Narrows.

Most calls come from the boxes placed in the centre of the bridge - which is also where most people jump.

"We try to keep a person on the line," said Ross, to let them know, 'There is hope.'" Since the phones were installed, crisis workers have answered 55 calls from the Lions Gate Bridge and dispatched emergency help in about 90 per cent of cases.

It doesn't always work. The crisis phones were already in place on the day that Rio Bond walked by them to jump to her death.

Since the beginning of 2010, 23 people have also jumped to their deaths off the Lions Gate - 10 more than in the four years preceding that.

That's why barriers are still such an important part of the discussion, said Ross.

As part of his research into the issue, Ross said he spoke to Kevin Hines, one of very few people to have survived a jump from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. "I wanted to know if the signs and the phones would have made a difference to him.

"He said they wouldn't. He was in such a psychotic state they wouldn't have helped. He said the only thing that would have stopped him would have been a net or a high barrier."

There is no great mystery about why certain places become magnets for people looking to end their lives. For the most part, there are practical reasons. "It's something they've heard about. It's something they know works," said Klonsky.

That is one of the reasons bridge suicides, and the issues surrounding them, are generally not reported.

In practical terms, people choose places that are easy to get to by bus or bike or car. They choose bridges they know don't have high railings.

"The big problem," said Ross, "is you can just walk there, flip your leg over, and you're gone."

John Kitson, an engineer who commutes over the Lions Gate Bridge by bicycle, knows that all too well.

It was a summer afternoon around 4:30 p.m. and he was cycling over the bridge to Horseshoe Bay when he saw the young woman sitting on the railing with her legs dangling over the edge. She was young - he guessed around 22 or 23.

He put down his bike. Another pedestrian, a middle-aged woman, was already standing next to the girl. "I asked her what she was doing," he said.

The girl told him that she wanted to jump. "She said something to the effect that her life wasn't worth living," said Kitson.

"I said to her, 'I think I'm a little older than you and I can tell you that it is worth living.'" He continued to talk to her while she sat on the railing, her legs dangling 60 metres above the water. "I said, 'You need to come down so we can help you."

He grabbed on to her, then, picked her up and put her on the sidewalk. She was surprisingly light.

He and the other pedestrian began walking her off the bridge. "I had an arm around her shoulder," he said. As they walked, they talked a little. Eventually, traffic stopped as the bridge shut down. A police car arrived.

Kitson doesn't remember even thinking about what was going to happen if he couldn't save the girl. "If you started to think about the consequences, you'd never do it."

It's not something he has spoken of much. Sometimes he wonders what happened to that girl. "Whether she got the right help. Whether she went out the next week and tried it again."

It made him think about the pain some people must go through that would bring them to that place on the bridge railing.

"Here you are. You can decide to slip a little bit and you're gone."

You can read Part 2 of this story The Bridge's Heavy Burden here.

• • •

Seek help - for yourself or others

If you - or someone you know - is in crisis or distress, know that you are not alone. There is help and there are people who will listen.

Talk to a family member, a teacher, a doctor, a coach or a person you trust.

Call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.

Call the Crisis Centre at 604-872-3311 or B.C.-wide at 1-800-SUICIDE.

Young people can call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 to speak to a professional counsellor.

Families and survivors can also get help at SAFER (Suicide Attempt Follow-up, Education & Research) at 604-675-3985.

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