Despite the installation of taller railings, people are still committing suicide in increasing numbers at the Foresthill Bridge in Auburn. A man using a ladder Tuesday circumvented the barrier.
The bridge, at 730 feet above the American River, is the highest in California and the fourth highest in the country. It has been the site of more than 70 suicides since its construction in 1971. In 2014, as part of a federally funded $74 million retrofitting project, the bridge was reinforced with new steel, repainted and installed with a taller fence. The fence, which cost $1.5 million, was built to discourage suicides. But at 6 feet 6 inches, people are still managing to climb it.
At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, a passerby witnessed a man using a telescoping ladder to circumvent the bridge’s suicide prevention barrier, said Dena Erwin, Placer County sheriff’s spokeswoman. The 54-year-old Rocklin man placed a ladder against the south railing of the bridge, climbed the ladder and jumped to his death.
Scott Liske, supervising ranger for the Auburn State Recreation Area, said this is the second suicide he has responded to this year in which someone used a ladder to bypass the railing.
“The fence used to be 4 feet 6 inches, and they raised it to 6 feet 6 inches, but frankly the suicides haven’t stopped,” Erwin said. “Other people have been able to climb it – younger people don’t even need a ladder.”
When asked how many suicides have occurred since the new fence was installed, Erwin said “far too many,” though she did not know specific numbers. “It’s still happening regularly,” she said.
Robert Miller, Placer County’s public information officer, said when the state Department of Transportation inspects the bridge, they use an under bridge inspection truck. While parked on the bridge, the truck sends a bucket over the edge of the railing, allowing inspectors to look at the features on the underside of the bridge. A height of 6 feet 6 inches was the tallest the fence could be and still allow this type of inspection.
Miller said neither he nor the engineers responsible for refurbishing the bridge could recall a request for taller railings. But if they did receive such a request, they would be unable to comply, he said.
“We would lose the ability to inspect the bridge in that way, and that’s the most efficient way to do it,” Miller said.
Although there are ways to get past the 6-foot-6-inch barrier, Liske said he does believe the new railings have lowered the bridge’s suicide rate. It takes time to climb the fence, he said, and during that period a bystander may be able to step in.
Only so much can be done by the county to discourage people from jumping, Erwin said. Both she and Miller noted other suicide prevention efforts in place, such as the bridge’s six hotline phones connected to crisis counselors.
Twelve years ago, Gail Beeman’s son, Christopher, jumped off the Foresthill Bridge. Beeman, an Auburn resident, successfully petitioned the county to have phones installed on the bridge afterward, and the phones have saved many lives, she said.
But taller fences will not prevent people from committing suicide, Beeman said, it’ll simply encourage them to do it elsewhere.
She added the county should have considered making the bridge enclosed, given the amount of money they were already spending on the project. But even then, Beeman said, people still would have found creative ways to circumvent the enclosure.
“If we want to really prevent suicide, we need to be proactive with recognizing anxiety and depression,” Beeman said. “I think we need to recognize the signs before they get to the bridge.”