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Monday, September 17, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neighbors work to end bridge's tragic pull

Seattle Times staff reporter

Resources

FRIENDS (Fremont Residents, Individuals and Employees Non-profit to Decrease Suicides): www.seattlefriends.org.

Local Crisis Clinic: 206-461-3222 and 866-427-4747 and TTY/TDD 206-461-3219 or

www.crisisclinic.org.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255) or 800-SUICIDE (784-2433).

National Alliance on Mental Illness: www.nami.org.

It wasn't like Rachel Izzo's friend and teammate to be late. Their soccer game was about to start. Where was she?

Rachel, then 16, thought it was odd when her normally jovial coach told everyone to sit down. But it was when he started pacing back and forth that she knew something was wrong.

Seattle's Aurora Bridge is a city landmark with a dark allure: Since 1932, more than 200 people have ended their lives by throwing themselves over its modest 3-½-foot railing. It's the continent's second-most-popular spot for suicide jumpers, next to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, site of at least 1,200 deaths.

They jump into the waters of the Lake Washington Ship Canal or, with increasing frequency, onto the ground below. Since 1995, four people a year on average have leaped to their deaths, but last year alone there were nine, the most since 1972.

While other cities such as Toronto and Washington, D.C., have outfitted bridges with barriers to address similar situations — in many cases, after far fewer suicides — the Aurora Bridge remains largely unchanged from its original design.

In December, the city installed telephones on the bridge, and signs promoting a crisis hotline, but six people have jumped so far this year. Four died.

"If they don't call, the phones aren't helpful," says Don Kuch, clinical director at Crisis Clinic Seattle/King County, which is aware of only a few calls coming from the bridge. (The clinic has no caller-ID system.) "Physical barriers are quite effective."

The results have been traumatic for those who live and work in the area beneath the bridge. "A lot of people are angry that nothing has been done," says Bina Donakowski-Jones, whose 34th Street workshop at Jones Glassworks looks toward the span.

The once-industrial waterway it crosses is now dense with condos, houseboats and office complexes. Since early this year, a group of activists, businesses and community leaders has been urging policymakers to help prevent suicides by erecting a barrier on the bridge or closing off pedestrian access altogether.

The self-described "stakeholders' group" notes successes achieved by barriers on other bridges: Pasadena's Colorado Street Bridge. Australia's Sydney Harbor Bridge. The FDR Memorial Bridge in Augusta, Maine. And Toronto's Bloor Street Viaduct, which had been the second-deadliest span in North America. In all cases, proponents say, the number of suicides dropped to zero.

And already in Seattle, they note, a $2.1 million pedestrian rail was added to the Aurora Bridge sidewalks after just one car-pedestrian fatality in 25 years.

But while future measures could include added police patrols and cameras, the state Department of Transportation says a barrier remains "a significant engineering and political challenge."

The associated costs, officials say, are formidable, including installation and increased maintenance and operation expenses. And because the state and city share responsibility for the bridge, neither can move forward without the other.

But the price of doing nothing, the stakeholders group counters, is even higher.

The truth was hard, on this Sunday in May 2006, and it came slowly: A 15-year-old girl, the coach said, had jumped off the Aurora Bridge.

The bold, vivacious teammate who wore No. 12 would never be coming back.

Others started to cry. Rachel Izzo, wordless and numb, felt like she'd been punched. When she finally left to prepare for an exam, the coach said not to let the news affect her performance — that's not what her friend would have wanted — and that's when Rachel broke down.

For Rachel, now a 17-year-old senior at Seattle's Holy Names Academy, her teammate's death was the hardest thing she'd ever experienced. They hadn't been close friends, but the tragedy struck her in a deep, unexpected way. Looking to convert her grief into something good, she joined FRIENDS (Fremont Residents, Individuals and Employees Non-profit to Decrease Suicides), and now runs the group's MySpace page.

She can't dwell on the pain, or the past. She can't bring her friend back. What she can do is this.

"I firmly believe that if the bridge hadn't been accessible, she wouldn't have done it," Rachel says. "If there's a reason she had to die, something positive that can come out of it, I'd like to be a part of that."

Along this stretch of North 34th Street, everyone's got a story — instances of stopped traffic, shaken eyewitnesses, emergency vehicles howling like echoes of the unimaginable. A few months ago, Mary Langer, owner of Mama's Brown Bags lunch operation on Fremont's 34th, was working with the door open when she heard a sound she couldn't identify.

It wasn't until she heard the sirens that she knew what had happened. A man had hit the power lines during his fatal plunge. Before long, the lights went out. "Sometimes I still think about it and pray for him," Langer says.

In 1999, Russ and Gem Daggatt chose to live in a nearby houseboat not just for the convenience but because they loved the bridge. The nearly 3,000-foot-long steel cantilever structure is a virtual art piece of engineering in what doubles as their backyard, and it played so much into their unfolding dreams that they incorporated its struts into the design of Gem's wedding band.

Then, as the years passed, they got used to the circling police boats. But some things they can't get used to: There was the man who screamed from atop the bridge for what had to be 45 minutes. "Then the last scream, you could hear coming down," Gem says.

Once there were two deaths in one weekend, and Gem started wondering whether she could still call this home. She used to sit atop the houseboat and enjoy the view. Not anymore.

One weekend morning in May 2006, the Daggatts and their two young daughters walked to the hub of Fremont for breakfast, and on the way back, Gem decided to run an errand. When the family finally came home, they approached the path toward the houseboats, but they were waved away by police officers.

Then they saw a female form on the ground, 20 feet away. Russ picked up one daughter and covered her eyes. Gem took the other and pointed at the ducks in the water.

Such realities had always been veiled in distant anonymity. This time, because they'd been so close, Russ wanted to know: Who was that?

In the next day's paper, he saw a short news item: "A 15-year-old girl from the Seattle area died Saturday morning after jumping off the Aurora Bridge ... "

A 32-year-old shoe salesman was the first to jump. The Aurora Bridge, whose official name is the George Washington Memorial Bridge, 167 feet high at its peak, had barely been built. It was 1932.

They've come ever since, and while the number is just a small fraction of the suicides that occur annually in King County, the death of a 15-year-old girl, the youngest known victim of the plunge, was a turning point — a jolt of sadness displacing the anger the community below had nearly grown numb to.

For two years, Ryan Thurston has worked for semiconductor developer Impinj, whose offices overlook an adjoining parking lot under the bridge. Thurston has seen things he didn't want to see, and when he decided he'd seen enough, he started FRIENDS to find a solution and raise public awareness.

FRIENDS, part of the stakeholders group gathered by Fremont Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michael Jerrett, has methodically pursued its cause, compiling statistics (average jumper: 39-year-old male), pushing PowerPoint presentations ("Seattle's Inconvenient Truth") and meeting with officials.

"Certainly something needs to happen," says City Council President Nick Licata, who supports an iron-railing-style barrier that would complement the bridge's architecture. He credits FRIENDS for raising the issue, which he says the council likely will address after the current budget period.

"I think it warrants action," says state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who aims to include a barrier feasibility study in the Legislature's supplemental budget in January. "Especially when you look at all the consequences."

Unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, half of the Aurora Bridge is over land, and traffic below includes residents, rowers, employees, boaters and users of the Burke-Gilman Trail. How long, some wonder, before a jumper causes a secondary fatality?

State Transportation Department spokesman Stan Suchan says a barrier faces engineering challenges, historical-landmark issues and cost — likely $5 million-plus. And between studies, design and the public process, such a move is at least two years away.

Liz Koser, an accountant for Impinj and a FRIENDS member, knows some think that a barrier won't make a difference, that someone who wants to die will find another way, that those who jump must be mentally ill.

"I don't think people are necessarily cruel," Koser says. "I think they just don't understand. It's a very impulsive act."

It's hard to know whether bridge barriers save lives, but they do act as deterrents. Barrier proponents cite decades of research, including a 1978 University of California-Berkeley study showing that only 6 percent of those who were kept from jumping off the Golden Gate actually went on to kill themselves.

In Washington, D.C., a barrier placed on the Duke Ellington Bridge did not result in a rise in suicides at the Howard Taft Bridge a block away; a 2005 study of Augusta's Memorial Bridge concluded the same after a barrier was erected there in 1989.

In May, Rachel Izzo attended a memorial at the bridge marking the one-year anniversary of her friend and teammate's death. It's hard for her to go near the bridge, she says. Her stomach lurches, "like it's screaming at me about what happened."

Because they went to different high schools, she's found solace in Internet pages dedicated to the girl's memory, finding others with whom to share her grief. A few months ago, Rachel wrote on her friend's MySpace page on what would have been her 17th birthday:

"it's hard. how can i not think of you? ... i rode my bike under that damn bridge today. sometimes i can't help but wonder — did you kill yourself, or did the bridge kill you? if the bridge hadn't been there, would you have done it?

"it still hurts. happy birthday ... i miss and love you."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com. Staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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