Community wonders how to stop Capitol Boulevard bridge deaths

In two weeks, Olympia has seen two deaths under the Capitol Boulevard bridge, prompting community members to ask, “What can we do to stop this?”

In both cases, 20-year-old men fell to their deaths from the bridge despite an 8-foot, 6-inch fence. The first man was found dead on Interstate 5 on Nov. 6. On Nov. 18 witnesses saw another young man scale the fence and jump onto the freeway. Both men died during rush hour.

Shortly after the second man’s death, a petition cropped up on Change.org asking the city of Olympia to install a crisis telephone on the bridge, giving those in need access to social services. And as of Friday afternoon, 647 people had signed on to support the measure.

The petition was created by Olympia Memes, a Facebook page that generally pokes fun at the city but has at times been involved in campaigns to help the city. The manager of the page, who remains anonymous, communicated with The Olympian via email.

“While we understand that issues surrounding mental health are complex and bigger than any one answer, supporters feel that installing a crisis line on the Capitol Boulevard bridge would be a means of letting people know that their city cares about them enough to give a last effort push to help. In the age of technology it's true that cell phones are everywhere, but to the collective, we feel that if a crisis line saves even one life, it would be worth it,” Olympia Memes wrote.

“This is something that we as a community have to rise above and fight for.”

Placing a phone on the Capitol Boulevard bridge wouldn’t necessarily be a matter for the city, because the state owns the bridge. The project would need approval from the Washington State Department of Transportationand Olympia Memes said the petition will be sent there, too.

WSDOT spokesman Doug Adamson said that while the department isn’t generally in the business of putting the phones on bridges — they focus instead on more traditional transportation issues — they would be willing to work with groups hoping to make the improvements.

“If someone were to come to us, we would be able to work with them,” Adamson said. “We’re willing to do what we can to promote safety.”

Another worry, he said, is that someone jumping from the bridge could fall on a driver below. An average of 138,000 cars passed under the bridge each day in 2013.

To help ensure travelers’ safety, WSDOT installed an 8-foot, 6-inch fence on the overpass in 2011, which was officially designed to stop people from throwing objects onto the road.

“Even though it’s primarily designed for debris, we obviously designed it to deter people, too,” Adamson said. “But if someone does want to hurt themselves, it really is hard to stop a determined person.”

The fence was built following a string of fatalities between 2006 and 2011, during which at least one person died after falling from the bridge each year. The fence put a stop to the deaths for several years, with the Nov. 6 incident being the first death since the fence was installed.

Trooper Guy Gill, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol, said that at the very least, the fence slows people down, giving law enforcement a chance to intervene. Troopers were successful in dissuading someone from jumping a few months ago, he said.

“It can take a while, and we have to close the lanes underneath while we talk to the person,” Gill said. “But people need to take into consideration that there is a life at risk, and we are on their timetable.”

The Capitol Boulevard fence is similar in many ways to Seattle’s Aurora Bridge fence, said WSDOT spokesman Greg Phipps. The 8-foot, 9-inch Aurora fence was also constructed in 2011, at the request of community members.

Phipps said prior to the fence’s construction, an average of four people per year died after falling from the bridge. But 2006 was the turning point. After nine people died after falling from the bridge, a community group asked WSDOT to make a change, Phipps said.

As with the Capitol Boulevard bridge, people who jumped from the Aurora bridge frequently landed in densely populated areas, creating a risk for passersby.

“We had a situation in that there was a newly completed office park on the Fremont side of the bridge,” Phipps said. “So you’ve got a lot of parking lots, these office buildings, apartment complexes. So it was really a public safety issue.”

For the most part, the project has been a success, Phipps said. Two deaths have been associated with the bridge since then.

But some people argue that fences simply treat the symptom, not the underlying problem, and that local government should focus on access to social services instead. Several petition signers argue that a crisis line on the bridge would be a final attempt to connect people who need help to those services.

Comments on the petition include:

“Please consider options other than fencing because it is very apparent that the fencing is not helping to stop the problem,” wrote Olympia resident Brienna Williams.

“This is a great idea and something that might actually make more of a difference than a taller fence would in suicide prevention,” wrote Olympia resident Carrie Abbey-Franzen.

“We are not going to solve the suicide jumping, but having an emergency crisis phone would allow for bystanders to easily reach emergency services. Then maybe we could get a chance to get emergency services to negotiate with the potential jumper. A phone may help save lives. I feel it would be better than a higher fence,” wrote Rochester resident Christina Armstrong.

Thurston County Social Services Director Mark Freedman said his department is looking to expand treatment options for young adults ages 18 to 24. He said many people find the transition to adulthood difficult and are in need of specialized care.

“We really want to help people in that traditional stage,” Freedman said.

Thurston County residents will also have increased access to mental health beds starting next year, Freedman said. The Legislature allocated $1.8 million for a mental health triage center near the Accountability and Restitution Center, which will have 10 beds . Patients would be committed both voluntarily and involuntarily, from both the Thurston County Jail and the county’s general population.

The triage center could be a valuable option for people contemplating suicide, he said.

“We are certainly very concerned for any suicidal youth or adults,” Freedman said.

For now, those in need can turn to Provident St. Peter Hospital, which has an 18-bed inpatient psychiatry unit.

And anyone who is dealing with a crisis, or just needs someone to talk to, can call the Crisis Clinic at 360-586-2800.

The clinic is open 24/7, and all information is kept confidential.