PROVIDENCE — Colleen Carpender will never forget they day in April 2021 when she was driving home to Portsmouth and spotted a man preparing to jump from the Newport Pell Bridge.
Carpender, who works in the mental health field, stopped her car and was opening her door as two other people rushed to try to stop the man. But it was too late.
“I couldn’t get out fast enough,” she recalled. “I always wonder if I could have said to him, ‘I see you. We want to see you live.’ Would that have made a difference? I don’t know.”
She also wonders if that man would still be alive if there had been a net or some type of barrier on the side of the bridge.
Those memories came rushing back on Saturday when Carpender found herself stuck in traffic at the Newport Pell Bridge because someone else had jumped from the span.
The latest incident is spurring a local advocacy group, Bridging the Gap for Healing and Safety, to renew its call to install suicide prevention barriers on the state’s most iconic bridges: the Newport Pell, Jamestown Verrazzano, Mount Hope, and Sakonnet River bridges.
Carpender is among the more than 5,400 people who have signed an online petition that says, “The time is now! Take the means for suicide away! We don’t want to lose any more people to these bridges.”
“I don’t know why they are hesitating to put them up,” Carpender said of bridge barriers. “It seems like a very simple solution for a complicated problem.”
A co-founder of Bridging the Gap for Healing and Safety, Bryan Ganley, said three people have jumped from the Newport Pell Bridge in the past three months.
“Those three suicides show us there is a deficit in our ability to keep our people safe in this state,” he said. “There is something seriously wrong.”
Ganley – a 40-year volunteer for The Samaritans of Rhode Island who has been advocating for suicide-prevention barriers on local bridges since a friend took his own life in the 1980s – called for state officials or the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority to put up temporary barriers while they pursue a more permanent solution.
“Even it’s approved, it is a wait,” he said. “It could be years.”
Ganley, who lives in Bristol, said people who live along Rhode Island’s coast are tired of hearing helicopters searching for people who have jumped from the bridges.
“If you live in northern Rhode Island, you might not hear the helicopters,” he said. “They don’t always get what we are going through. lt’s a problem we are dealing with.”
Senator Louis P. DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat, and Representative Joseph J. Solomon Jr., a Warwick Democrat, have introduced legislation that would require suicide prevention barriers on three of those bridges by Jan. 1, 2023.
On Wednesday, DiPalma said he and other legislators are pushing to budget $1.5 million to pay for engineering and design work on the bridge barriers. He noted that Rhode Island is receiving $1.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, and that new revenue and caseload estimates show the state will take in $580 million more than expected over two years.
“We have plenty of one-time money, and this is a critically important topic that needs to be addressed,” DiPalma said. “This is the right thing to do.”
He said the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority has already chosen a company to do the engineering and design work, and once the money is approved, he hopes that work will take less than six months. He said that engineering and design process will determine how much the barriers themselves will cost.
DiPalma said legislators held hearings on the bridge barriers bills, but the key is to include that funding in the state budgeting process.
“The hearings hopefully have made the case that this is needed,” he said. “I think it has. The testimony provided by the witnesses has been extremely compelling.”
The testimony also underscores the need to enhance “the continuum of mental health care,” DiPalma said. “We need to take away this unfortunate means by which people have ended their lives because they aren’t receiving the services they need.”
You can reach the Samaritans of Rhode Island at (401) 272-4044 or toll free in Rhode Island at (800) 365-4044. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-Talk (8255). The state Department of Health offers resources and information at preventsuicideri.org.