The bridge's heavy burden

Lions Gate safety barriers an engineering challenge

Ron Joseph is another parent who has felt the dark shadow of the Lions Gate Bridge fall across his life.

Joseph's son Tyler, 26, jumped to his death from the bridge on the Labour Day weekend, September 2010.

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It has been a long three years of working through his shock and anger, and asking the questions, "What if? Why didn't I? How come?" Joseph said he has worked hard to try to forgive himself and to forgive Tyler.

"My son was not mentally challenged. He wasn't depressed. He wasn't any of those things you'd think a suicidal person would be," said Joseph.

"He was the young father of a two-year-old boy."

Growing up, Tyler split his time between his mother's house and Joseph's home - first in East Vancouver, later on Squamish Nation land. He played hockey at the Burnaby Winter Club, did martial arts and played football.

"The kid who wasn't popular, the kid who wasn't rich, the kid who was mentally challenged. .. he would go to them," said Joseph. "He knew how to put them at ease."

Joseph remembers his son as "tall, dark and handsome."

In 2006, Tyler took part in a walk across Canada to raise awareness about suicide prevention for native youth. He also went on a two-week canoe journey to connect him with his cultural roots that summer.

Like most young men, Tyler had some rough patches growing up, said Joseph, times when he was "young and dumb", hanging around the wrong people, binge drinking and taking drugs.

But the birth of his son had changed that, said Joseph.

"I thought it really did give him the shakeup that he needed. His son was the light of his life. He was a very attentive father."

Joseph remembers how they spent the weekend before Tyler's death together - Ron, Tyler and Tyler's young son - in Stanley Park. They talked about some of the tough times, said Joseph. Tyler told him, "'I can't believe I put you through that.' It wasn't really father to son, it was man to man, father to father."

On the morning Tyler jumped to his death, Joseph remembers they had an ordinary conversation in the morning about having dinner together. Then Joseph went to work. It was the last time he saw his son alive.

He didn't hear anything for the next three days, but didn't think much of it.

Tyler had a new girlfriend, and Joseph assumed his son was spending time with her.

It was a Friday morning when the doorbell rang. The police told him Tyler had jumped from the Lions Gate Bridge.

"He didn't leave a note. He didn't leave a thing. Not only for me, but for his son," said Joseph.

He went to identify his son's body. "I don't want another parent to do that. It's something no parent should ever have to do," he said.

Tyler's friends, coaches and fellow paddlers were all shocked. "They all couldn't believe that he did this," said Joseph.

On the day Tyler died, he had gone to the PNE with friends, said Joseph. Later, he ran into a buddy from his old partying scene. They ended up at English Bay, drinking and doing drugs. Later that night he was seen by an off-duty police officer, running between traffic lanes down the middle of the causeway towards the bridge. By the time the police officer turned around his car, Tyler had got up on the railing and jumped. "He was there and then he wasn't," said Joseph.

In the years since Tyler died, Joseph has attended native talking circles, gone to grief counselling, has taken part in a documentary about suicide among native youth and has relied on his faith.

When he first read that the B.C. Coroners Service had recommended a barrier be put up in 2008, he was furious.

"You want somebody to blame. You want to point a finger. You want reasons," he said.

"I'm just thinking how much is my son's life worth? If there was a suicide barrier put up. .. my son would still be alive."

The issue of a barrier for the Lions Gate Bridge has been discussed by the B.C. Coroners Service and the Ministry of Transportation for about five years.

After both the Lions Gate Bridge and the Second Narrows were shut down for several hours on Canada Day 2008, it was the issue of traffic disruption that propelled then-transportation minister Kevin Falcon to ask staff to look into the issue.

A preliminary report by Stantec Consulting in 2009 concluded a net system under the bridge was one option, although that wouldn't help with traffic shutdowns. Higher physical barriers, however, had been internationally recognized as "the most effective strategy for preventing bridgerelated suicides." Stantec put an estimated cost to add a barrier to the Lions Gate at $30 million to $35 million.

The ministry looked at the issue again in November 2011, when it issued a request for proposals for an engineering study to examine adding suicide deterrents to the Lions Gate Bridge. Buckland & Taylor - a North Vancouver-based bridge engineering firm that oversaw the Lions Gate deck replacement project a decade ago - were chosen to investigate.

But following a preliminary review of the proposals and associated costs, the ministry chose to reassess its options, and not go ahead with a detailed study.

According to a letter obtained under Freedom of Information, the bridge engineers said it might be impossible to attach a net system under the Lions Gate, while adding barriers would be prohibitively expensive.

Built in 1937 as a twolane private bridge, the Lions Gate was designed for much lighter load limits than bridges are today.

"Over the years we've tried to put more and more on this bridge," said Patrick Livolsi, regional director of the south coast region for the Ministry of Transportation. "It wasn't meant to take this kind of loading."

When the deck replacement was carried out more than a decade ago - significantly widening the bridge deck and sidewalks from the original design, keeping weight low was a challenge.

At the time "there was no discussion about putting the safety barriers on... ." said Livolsi.

It's possible barriers could have been included by making the sidewalks slightly narrower, he said. "But now that it's actually built, to refit that railing complicates everything."

The main problem with higher railings is they create more wind loading, said Livolsi, which pushes extra force on the bridge deck. "All that weight is pulling down on the cables and those cables are pulling down on the towers themselves."

In the letter summarizing issues for the ministry, Buckland & Taylor's engineers concluded the towers, cables and other key bridge structures would likely not be able to withstand the extra windloading of a higher barrier, without strengthening.

They concluded: "We believe the total cost of the project could easily exceed $100 million."

The Lions Gate Bridge is, of course, not the only suspension bridge to have faced similar issues.

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge - a much bigger structure built at the same time as the Lions Gate - retains the worst record of suicide deaths in North America. An average of 40 people a year jump to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge and more than 1,600 have died in total.

David Hull's daughter Kathy is one of them.

Hull is now president of the Bridge Rail Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to seeing an effective suicide barrier put up on that bridge.

For about 70 years, nobody - especially the authorities in charge of the bridge - wanted to talk about suicides, said Hull.

Then in 2006, Eric Steel's film The Bridge came out. Steel set up a camera near the Golden Gate and recorded everyone who jumped from the bridge for a year. The film was both shocking and a wake-up call, said Hull. "For the first time it was put into the public face that yes, this really happens."

One of the first public officials to join the group advocating for a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge was the Marin County coroner. "For decades he had to tell families and he got tired of it," said Hull.

In 2008, authorities in charge of the Golden Gate Bridge approved plans to install a net system that will sit 20 feet below the bridge deck, but no money to fund it. Cost of the net was estimated at the time at US$50 million.

These days, Hull is optimistic changes at the U.S. federal level will pave the way for public funding of the project. "It's a government responsibility," he said.

Hull understands that committing money to a barrier is difficult. "Not only does the public not want to talk about suicide or learn about suicide. .. they truly do not want to open their wallets to fund suicide prevention," he said.

Talking about suicide is like talking about breast cancer was 30 years ago, he said. "You can't mention the word suicide. It just stops everything."

Hull said engineering for the net system on the Golden Gate has never been seriously contested.

Suicide barriers were also added in 2009 to Halifax's Angus L. MacDonald suspension bridge, built in the 1950s, despite its own modernization project in the 1990s that added considerable weight to that bridge.

For years, the bridge authority there said engineering had ruled out a higher barrier.

Then in 2008 - after some high profile examination of bridge suicides - an in-depth

study concluded the bridge could withstand the extra weight and loading. The barriers were added on top of the existing handrail at a cost of $1 million - paid for by bridge tolls.

"I will say they have saved lives," said Alison MacDonald, spokeswoman for Halifax Harbour Bridges. "They work."

But while the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge appears very similar to the Lions Gate - designed by the same company and of a similar size - from an engineering standpoint, it may not be, said Livolsi. A bridge built in the 1950s would likely be built to much different standards than one in the 1930s. The Golden Gate - because it is a much larger bridge - would also have been built to take great loads, he said.

Hull said any engineering that rules out barriers deserves to be examined. "If there are engineering studies that find it cannot be done. .. you'd want to see those. Someone should ask to see those studies and to look at them carefully."

Ralph Sultan, MLA for West Vancouver-Capilano and a professional engineer himself, has followed the debates about barriers for the Lions Gate Bridge. Sultan said he thinks the barrier issue should get another serious look.

Politicians don't like to discuss the issue of suicide, he acknowledged - there's not much political payback. But over the years he's come to the conclusion, if it is technically possible, "It would be good public policy to put up barriers."

Not doing something also has a cost.

Fred Moxey, who worked for more than 30 years in charge of the now-closed Kitsilano Canadian Coast Guard station, has had his own time of reckoning with the bridge.

When a jump is witnessed, it is either a coast guard crew or police boat that is called out to the scene. The people he pulled out of the water haunted Moxey for years.

"I just got so discouraged not being able to resuscitate somebody," he said.

As Moxey knows first hand, their deaths were not romantic.

"Everyone I've picked up, they've been just so broken apart by the impact," he said. "It's 215 feet from the car deck at low tide. They're probably doing 110 miles an hour when they hit the water."

Sometimes the crew couldn't find anyone. "We might find them the next day or a month later or six months later. Or not find them at all."

Some people hit the concrete bulkhead under the tower.

One woman in her 50s parked her Mercedes Benz on the bridge deck before jumping over the railing. The coast guard vessel had just picked up fuel and was coming out of the harbour, when the crew got the call. "We had her on the cutter right away," and started CPR, said Moxey. "We got a pulse on her."

He remembers thinking, "This woman is going to survive and get help."

But when they got back to the base, they got a call from the hospital, saying she had died. It still bothers him.

"If anyone had a chance, she had a chance," he said.

"We tried to give her that. It didn't work."

Usually, after they picked someone up, there was a delivery to shore and some paperwork to fill out, but there was no talking about it.

Moxey was eventually diagnosed with posttraumatic stress related to the attempted rescues and body recoveries. "I started thinking about all those people who had gone off those bridges that I'd filed away in the back of my head somehow. It started coming out," he said.

His own journey through post-traumatic stress has given him empathy for those whose lives he tried to save. Their deaths all brought him sadness. "It's somebody in the prime of their life," he said. He remembers thinking, "Why, why, why? I wish I could put you all back together again and give you another chance."

After his 26 year-old daughter Rio Bond jumped to her death from the Lions Gate Bridge in December 2010, it took her father Neil Bond six months to drive across the bridge.

"When I did it was with somebody driving me because I couldn't do it myself," he said.

Rio's mother Lou Guest regularly goes across the bridge to attend counselling with suicide survivors. Two of the nine people in her bereavement group have lost children who jumped to their deaths from a bridge.

Guest is angry that barriers aren't a priority. "It pisses me off," she said.

She said if the child of a high profile person died this way, "We'd probably have a barrier the next day."

If the bridge had barriers, Guest believes her daughter would still be alive.

"How many reasons do you have to have? Is there a set number of people who have to die before you do it? Is it the 80th person? The 81st?"

Guest said her daughter's death has brought her to a hard conclusion. "It doesn't matter how much people say they care. They don't fucking care."

Rio's parents don't talk about the anniversary of her death as it approaches.

"We don't talk about Christmas. We don't talk about Mother's Day, Father's Day, nothing," said Bond. "It took any joy out of our lives."

Joseph said the year after Tyler jumped, he went to the bridge on his son's birthday in July.

"Where I could figure out where he jumped, I taped a flower to it," he said. "It was a tough minute. There is that moment where you do look down."

Like Rio's parents, Joseph still wonders, "What's it going to take? What's it going to take for (people) to serious consider this?" Both families are on a long journey of grief.

"I have a bone to pick with the Creator," said Joseph. "I have a bone to pick with the Devil. I have a bone to pick with Death himself."

• • •

You can find Part 1 of this story, The Bridge's Long Shadow, at

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 SAFE R (Suicide Attempt Follow-up, Education & Research) at 604-675-3985. Families dealing with mental illness can call the North Shore Schizophrenia Society at 604-926-0856.

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