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Saving Lives at the Edge of the Bridge of Death

The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in Taos, New Mexico, has one the highest bridge suicide rates per capita in the country. But with few answers and even fewer resources, the town is hoping the burgeoning field of ‘emotional architecture’ can help prevent jumpers from taking their lives

It’s only 630 feet to the bottom of the Rio Grande Gorge, but the descent can take hours. The path down to the river below is steep and treacherous; it’s an obstacle course of sharp rocks, rattlesnakes and precipitous drop-offs. At times, the trail is only 18 inches wide, barely enough room for a person — and the body bag they’re often carrying — to squeeze by. 

This is the route that 48-year-old Taos County Undersheriff Steve Miera and his team must take to retrieve the bodies of people who commit suicide by jumping from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, a picturesque suspension structure perched across the chasm’s mouth nearly 60 stories above. Since his first recovery in 2003, he’s had to take that same harrowing journey at least 25 times. 

A former Marine and Taos native, Miera is thorough and polite. He’s the type of guy who calls you “ma’am” and will ring you from his cop car during a homicide pursuit to calmly ask if he can reschedule an interview. “What happens to a body during a fall like that is just horrific,” he explains, thinking of his extraordinarily difficult and costly job, his voice softening into silence on the other line. “Work like this will absolutely scar you. It scars the whole community. It’s just not something you want to be known for as a town.”

He keeps it together because it’s his job to, but when his tenure is up in three years, he’s not sure he’ll come out the same. Right now, he says the only way he can cope with the suicide problem at the Gorge is to accept that until something gets done about the bridge, his next mission won’t be his last. 

According to New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI), an average of 2.5 people commit suicide by jumping off the Gorge Bridge each year. At least 50 people have died this way since regular records started being kept in 1991, but OMI research scientist Garon Bodor tells me the actual figure is likely much higher. Unless there are witnesses or a suicide note, it’s difficult to know whether someone jumped intentionally or fell by accident, and the bodies of some suspected jumpers are never identified or found. Still, numbers like those make Taos County — a close community of about 32,000 — home to one of the highest bridge suicide rates per capita in the country. (As is the case with all forms of suicide, most jumpers are middle-aged white men.) 

It’s not just locals who choose to end their lives there, though. Similar to other locations like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, nearly three-quarters of jumpers come from somewhere other than Taos County, 27 percent of whom travel from a different state or country. Miera says one woman traveled all the way from England and left a photographic record of her whole trip in her car. 

That said, most people who jump don’t leave notes or explanations, providing little insight into why they chose to end their lives there, on that particular bridge. “I can’t pretend to know what people are thinking when they’re up there,” Miera tells me. “Everyone is so different, and everyone has their own reasons for winding up where they are. The best I can guess is it’s like how some people feel when they come to Taos for the first time: When you get there, you just know.” 

It’s difficult to tell this story without examining what that feeling is, exactly. The locals all have their theories, but even the ones who’ve lost children, siblings and friends decline to share them with me — it’s just too risky. Talk about it too much, and you could encourage someone to jump. Talk about it too little, and nothing gets done to change it. It’s painful and complicated, and there are no easy answers. 

But for Miera, his recovery team and a handful of Taoseños whose loved ones have jumped, this isn’t a time for silence. Suicides at the Gorge Bridge are slowly increasing, and the time to act is now. “I know a lot of people who don’t like to talk about this, and I can really respect that,” Miera says. “But for me, talking about it helps. People need to know what goes on here because if it leads to a solution that saves even one person, then to me, it’s worth it.”

Located 10 miles outside of Taos on a sage-dotted stretch of Route 64, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is among the tallest, most picturesque steel suspension structures in the country. Built in 1965 to provide better vehicular access to New Mexico’s more populated areas, it holds a coveted spot in the National Register of Historic Places and the enviable title of “Most Beautiful Long Span Steel Bridge,” an accolade given to it in 1966 by the American Institute of Steel Construction. More recently, the bridge has also garnered a bit of an IMDb presence, with more than a few walk-on roles in big-budget films like Natural Born Killers, Terminator: Salvation and — wait for it — Wild Hogs. Nearly 3,500 tourists have rated the Gorge Bridge as “excellent” on TripAdvisor, referring to its panoramic views of the Taos Valley as “awe-inspiring” and “overwhelming.” 

I have to agree. As I’m perched atop a plank-like outcropping in the concrete highway that straddles the Gorge’s cavernous mouth, I’m particularly struck by the vastness of the landscape around me. To the east, the sloping emerald foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise over the distant sparkle of city light while a westward view reveals a canopy of cirrus clouds dyed gold from the setting sun. Under my feet, a long sliver of cerulean Rio Grande roars through billions of years of geologic strata in the canyon below. 

It’s an objectively good-looking view, but as my gaze focuses on more proximate landmarks — a crumpled stop sign tossed carelessly over a barbed wire fence, a stuffed polar bear lying lifelessly in the dirt — I’m reminded of the darker stories the bridge has to tell. When the sun sets, the bridge becomes a void. There are no lights to keep it from being plunged into darkness, and no regularly stationed bridge patrols, guards or police officers to keep it safe. The sidewalk is so narrow that you have to step directly into the busy road to let someone by and a strange collection of trash and detritus finds permanent residence on the cliffs below. Most tellingly, the guardrail — carpeted in graffiti and punctuated with large gaps a pet or child could easily fall through — is only four feet high. Incredibly, that height is up to standard for a historic highway bridge, but that doesn’t change the fact that at times, holding on to it seems almost as dangerous as letting go. When 29-year-old gallery director and Taos native Kimber Garcia tells me she and her friends almost never visit the bridge, I’m not surprised. “It’s creepy out there,” she says. “It just doesn’t feel like anyone cares about it.” 

Once the thrill of the view wears off, the bridge starts to feel abandoned, unsafe and ominous, almost menacing in its lack of attention toward its visitors’ well-being. As I look down at the guardrail to find the word “Jump” scribbled in black Sharpie, I wonder if Beacom or any of the people Miera has recovered felt those same things, too. 

Without a curiously specific suicide note, it’s impossible to know how much of someone’s decision to jump from a bridge has to do with the bridge itself. The feelings of sadness, helplessness and isolation that crescendo into a suicide plan usually begin long before a person encounters the means they’d like to die by, and the ways in which our culture continues to stigmatize, ignore and medicate those feelings only serves to compound the pain. Just like the dangerously oversimplified argument that “guns don’t kill people; people do,” it would be reductive and inaccurate to say that a bridge made someone jump. 

Though, in some cases, they certainly seem to help.

On a clear and unusually cold April morning in 2014, a family friend called 57-year-old Margaret O’Connor to tell her that her son, 23-year-old Cooper Beacom, was acting erratically. For reasons that are still unclear to her to this day, he’d driven up to Gorge from his home in nearby Santa Fe. Though she didn’t have a reason to panic — he was sober and had never been suicidal or clinically depressed — she rushed out the door to find him with her younger son Keaun, then 16, in tow. 

When they arrived, Beacom was on the bridge. They pulled up in their car to talk to him, but they only got to speak for a moment before he snapped. In the blink of an eye, he took off running toward the guardrail in the middle of the bridge, but it wasn’t until he tore his necklace, hat and sunglasses off that O’Connor realized her son — an exuberant, loving and funny young adult training to become an addiction counselor — was going to jump. She and Keaun were just a few steps behind him when he hopped over the thin railing and fell to his death. 

In the deafening silence that followed, she tried to wrap her mind around what had just happened. “It escalated so quickly,” she remembers, the downturned creases around her ice-blue eyes wearing an expression of continued disbelief. “He wasn’t a suicidal kid, and I’d never seen him act like that before. I think he made the decision to jump in the same second he did.”

It’s not that O’Connor thinks that bridge did this to him. But, there’s also no doubt in her mind that it made a split-second decision too easy. When I ask O’Connor what, if anything, she thinks might have prevented that from happening, her answer is simple: a suicide barrier. Had the bridge had some kind of net or fence-like structure in place to deter people from jumping, Beacom — or any of the others — might be alive today. 

While jumping suicides comprise only about five percent of intentional deaths in North America, rising suicide rates in many countries around the world have made suicide barriers an increasingly common feature on bridges both at home and abroad. In Toronto, the Prince Edward Viaduct — once considered North America’s second-deadliest bridge — was recently outfitted with a beautiful one, an incandescent safety structure called a Luminous Veil. Down under in New Zealand, a translucent glass enclosure constructed on Auckland’s Grafton Bridge has all but eradicated attempts at suicide there. Meanwhile, Cornell University has added several to their campus over the past few years, and the infamously suicide-prone Golden Gate Bridge is being retrofitted with a horizontal net to catch falling jumpers as we speak. 

In many cases, methods like these really work. According to a 2017 study comparing the effectiveness of various suicide-prevention measures on bridges, nets are 77.1 percent effective at reducing suicides, while vertical barriers like tall bars or chain-link fences deter people from jumping 68.7 percent of the time. And since the bridges most suicidal people choose as their jumping point tend to hold some sort of symbolic significance in their lives, they don’t always go looking for another one — or another means — if a barrier foils their plan. They also send an important message. According to Priya Clemens, the Public Affairs Director for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, a suicide barrier can be a subtle or obvious sign that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want them to die. For these reasons, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline has declared barriers the “optimal means” for deterring a jump. 

But Taos isn’t San Francisco or Toronto. In the small town where funding is sparse and the red tape is thick, getting a barrier built on the Gorge Bridge has proven to be easier said than done. Though public records show nearly everyone with a dog in the fight wants one and preliminary measures have been taken to get it done, there hasn’t, to this day, been any change to the bridge’s original structure that would deter people from jumping. “It’s frustrating to watch these barriers go up on other suicide bridges around the country,” says O’Connor, clicking through image after image of freshly retrofitted bridge on her laptop at the Santa Fe coffee shop we’re meeting at. “Ours is just as tall and and the situation is just as serious.” 

O’Connor knew something had to change. In the months following Beacom’s death, she formed the Gorge Bridge Safety Network (GBSN), a community support group made of suicide survivors, engineers, statisticians, politicians and locals with a common goal: Get a barrier up, stat. Two of its members, Jerry Cannon, a bridge engineer, and Anette Meertens, a 62-year-old landscape architect who knew Beacom, were more than happy to mock one up.

What they came up with, however, was more than just an effective physical obstacle. In many ways, it was also a think piece — a clever barrier whose deceptively simple design provoked a question not often asked in either bridge design or suicide prevention: What if, in addition to providing an effective deterrent, a barrier could address the very psychology that makes people want to jump in the first place? 

It was a lofty idea with no known precedent, but Meertens says they wanted to do more for the community than simply put up a fence. Drawing on principles of environmental psychology and an emerging field called “neuro-architecture” — a movement that seeks to calm, engage, energize, uplift and empower through the thoughtful design of buildings and public works — Meertens set out to create a structure that did the exact opposite of what most barriers intend to do. Instead of pushing people further away from their surroundings in the name of safety, it would use the curative psychology of thrill to invite them further inside. 

“It just brings up so many questions about the role of design,” Marteens tells me while I sit beside her at her grey adobe cottage on the outskirts of town, where she pulls up a 3D model of their barrier design on her desktop and begins to describe its scope. “As architects and engineers, we’re tasked with assuring safe housing, transit and welfare to the public, but as the people responsible for creating their environment, isn’t it also our duty to consider the impact of what we make on their minds?” 

In the mock-up, they ditch the original guardrail and replace it with Jakob Webnet, a razor-thin, nearly transparent flexible steel netting system used for suicide prevention on bridges around the world. It’s the same material engineers are installing at the Golden Gate Bridge to catch jumpers, but instead of positioning theirs horizontally like a net, Meertens and Cannon orient theirs vertically to create a tall, virtually unclimbable screen that curves backwards in a concave arch. A series of steel poles stationed along the bridge’s length would give the screen structure, but apart from that, that’s all there is. Were you to walk your toes up to the edge of the bridge, the 1.5 millimeter-wide Webnet screen would be the only thing standing between you and the 600-foot drop-off into oblivion. 

If that sounds scary — or exciting — it’s supposed to be. Knowing that a reasonable amount of thrill from activities like BASE jumping or binge-watching true crime has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, Meertens hoped whoever found themselves exhilarated by the barrier might find it cathartic. “I wondered if it might satisfy the compelling sense of the deep void below,” she says. “Maybe it would relieve some tension one experiences at the bridge.” In a place like the Gorge, where Miera has recovered bodies of people whose parting notes claimed they weren’t suicidal but “just wanted to see what it was like on the other side,” that might not be the most outlandish idea. 

At the same time, Meertens also considered whether their barrier might provide a healthy sense of engagement for those who came to the bridge feeling isolated or alone. Suspended in mid-air amongst the kaleidoscopic layers of pink and gray rock descending into the canyon below, she wondered if they’d feel more a part of their environment than they had before they’d arrived. If the bridge had many visitors that day, having to step closer to the safe but precarious edge to navigate around other people on the sidewalk might thrust them into a shared social space, an effect that could draw them out of isolation, if only for a moment. That theory might check out, too — as many studies have shown, the less isolated you feel from your surroundings, the less likely you are to commit self-harm. 

To be clear, neither Meertens nor any member of the GBSN is a psychologist or suicidologist; right now, these ideas are purely theoretical. They’re also before their time: As Andy Herrmann, a bridge engineer and former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers confirms, emotion and psychology are almost never considered in bridge or barrier construction, at least in his field. In fact, he says suicide and mental heath are so far off the radar of most bridge engineers that he was surprised I’d even called to ask. “I’ve never even heard of mental health and suicide prevention coming up in community or project meetings I’ve been a part of,” he says. “I can see why it’s important that it would be, but right now, we’re pretty far from having that be a part of the engineering mindset. For us, it’s safety first.”

Yet, when Meertens and GBSN presented the design at a series of stakeholder meetings to advance the issue in 2017, all the key players in town were on board. According to comment sheets submitted to public record, both the Taos Pueblo and the Bureau of Land Management (each of which owns portions of the Gorge), as well as Taos Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe (who works with Miera on body recovery), expressed support for the design. And though several other ideas for barriers were also put forth and received with enthusiasm, the consensus during the meetings was clear: If it works, put it up. “People were sick of all the tragedy,” says Meertens. “Everybody wants this — or at least something like it.”

Well, almost everybody. The only people not in favor of the Webnet option was the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT), the government agency responsible for approving, funding and supervising the construction and maintenance of a suicide barrier on the bridge. Though they listened to the GBSN and incorporated some of their comments in later reports, they rejected their design, arguing that the material would be too easy to cut (Jakob insists that’s never happened elsewhere where it’s used). Plus, they argued, there was no funding for it, or any other barrier for that matter. 

Yet a quick peek at some of NMDOT’s most recent annual budgets and appropriations reveals that might not actually be the case. Had it been approved, GBSN’s barrier — as well as another similar barrier that was proposed — would have cost around $3.4 million to build, a fraction of the $886.4 million budget they had to work with in 2018 and the one-time General Fund bonus of $400 million they received this year due to the state’s “considerable surplus.” In 2012, the Gorge bridge also received a $2.4 million “facelift,” which consisted of some much-needed structural maintenance including new concrete, curbs, ramps and gutters. No one would fault NMDOT for spending the cash to improve bridge safety — that’s the whole point of a DOT — but if funds can be allocated for that, why not the safety of people like Beacom or Miera?

To be fair, it’s not just NMDOT who determines where the money goes. The Regional Transport Planning Organization — who also supports the construction of a barrier — allocates their budget and determines which projects receive funding and when. It’s also not as if NMDOT has done nothing to address safety on the bridge. In addition to conducting a preliminary structural feasibility analysis study — a necessary first step before design or funding can take place — they’ve reduced the speed limit on the bridge, mocked up several of their own designs for barriers and installed suicide hotline callboxes, which a representative from the New Mexico Crisis Line confirms are used regularly. As Paul Brasher, the NMDOT district engineer in charge of approving plans for a barrier on the bridge tells me, they’re on the case and they’re concerned; it’s just that the process has been slow. 

In the meantime, people continue to die. Since Beacom jumped in 2014, 16 others have followed suit, including a 14-year-old boy. Miera, of course, has gone down to collect almost every one. “Every day, I wish this wasn’t a part of my job,” he says. “But until something gets fixed up there, I have to accept that my last one isn’t going to be my last.”

Part of the lag appears to be confusion on the part of New Mexico’s government agencies over whose job it is to do something. Though NMDOT is doing what they can, they’re also not sure it’s them. “Right now, it’s a safe bridge,” says Brasher. “It gets cars safely across. It gets pedestrians safely across. Somebody jumping from it still doesn’t make the bridge unsafe. It just means they’re using it unsafely. Structurally speaking, [NMDOT] can determine whether or not the bridge can handle a barrier, but in terms of its effectiveness in reducing somebody’s determination to commit suicide, we’re not that agency.” 

In a couple of states to the west, it appears that agency is — at least in part — Caltrans, the California equivalent of NMDOT. Though it’s never been the responsibility of a transportation agency to address suicide before, Caltrans has spent the last decade or so funding, constructing and maintaining a variety of different suicide barriers on popular jumping sites throughout the state. In 2012, they completed barrier fencing on the Cold Springs Arch Bridge in Santa Barbara, and in March, they installed four-inch bird spikes on the rails of San Diego’s Coronado Bridge as a temporary salve while they considered better, more permanent solutions. The spikes didn’t really work — three people committed suicide in a 24-hour window shortly after they were erected— but at least Caltrans did something

Other government agencies have stepped up to the plate, too. In San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District — normally responsible for bus and ferry transport — is currently overseeing the construction of the aforementioned suicide netting under the bridge, a massive project that, when completed in 2021, will be the largest suicide deterrent net in the world. It’ll also be one that, like in Taos, was the result of a community-led effort to petition the local government for change. 

“It used to be the prevailing sentiment of our Board of Directors that mental health wasn’t really an issue a transportation agency needed to solve,” Clemens says. “But as our community started to challenge us to do something about it, the mentality of the folks on the board shifted. We realized that as a public structure and a tourist attraction, we’re part of the community, and it’s our job to serve it.” Now, she says, there’s no question that suicide prevention is a “vital interest” for her agency. 

Back in Taos, Meertens takes me out to the bridge so she can show me what her barrier would look like. As we walk along the sidewalk to the midway point, we pass hundreds of messages written in both faded and fresh black Sharpie on the guardrails and hotline callboxes. A few are gut-turning — one bastardizes the Nike slogan “Just Do It” — but most are positive, delivering moving words of encouragement to anyone who might read them. 

But more striking than that — or the sheer force of the landscape around us — is the overwhelming sense that more could be done. On a bridge like this, a hand-drawn heart and the words “You deserve to live” might be helpful to some, but a barrier, the kind that might actually keep you alive, would be helpful to all. 

Before we leave, we take a moment to remember Beacom. “It’s so sad to me that he went through what he did here,” Meertens says. “Doesn’t every one of us want to reach a hand out and help when we hear something like that? Doesn’t every single one of us with power and authority to assess these things want to reach out and grab their arm and pull them back over the edge? That, I think, is what good design should do.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.