It was the Fourth of July in 2011 when Regina-Anne and David Cooper got the news that would change their lives forever. Their 21-year-old son Derek had committed suicide by jumping from the Quechee Gorge Bridge. Now, the family is asking lawmakers to prevent similar deaths in the future.
On Tuesday afternoon, in a hushed conference room on the first floor of the Statehouse, David Cooper recounted the horror of that day.
“My son probably had second thoughts after he climbed over the 46-inch high railing, second thoughts that survivors of similar attempts at other bridges report when they don’t follow through with the initial plan,” Cooper said.
But Derek Cooper, a volunteer firefighter in his home town of Hartland, didn’t get a second chance. Neither did the eight other people who have committed suicide at the bridge over the last eight years, including three in the last year alone.
The Quechee bridge is a nearly 300-foot span that stands 168 feet above the bottom of the gorge below. The spot has become so enticing for would-be jumpers that locals tend to keep an eye out for despondent pedestrians peering over its rails.
It’s a place known as the only “suicide hotspot” in the state of Vermont. And Derek’s mom, Regina-Anne, says it’s time to do something about it.
“Every death at this bridge is wrong, is preventable, and it is entirely in the hands of the state to fix it,” she told lawmakers.
Rep. Teo Zagar, a Barnard Democrat, has introduced legislation in Montpelier calling for the construction of barriers on the bridge that would either impede people from making the jump, or stop their plunge if they did.
Zagar, whose district includes Hartland, has more than a passing familiarity with Derek Cooper. He worked at the high school Cooper once attended.
“And yes, we did have favorites. And Derek Cooper was at the top of a lot of teachers’ lists,” Zagar says.
No one at the public hearing on Zagar’s bill spoke in opposition to the proposal. But Zagar says some members of the Quechee business community have voiced opposition to the plan. According to Zagar, they say the proposal could mar the aesthetics of an historic landmark that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
Zagar says it’s a poor reason not to act.
“If we do nothing and the bridge’s future history is marred by a record of repeated incidents, then its legacy will be tarnished far more than its appearance might be if we do something,” Zagar says.
Dr. Joellen Tarallo-Falk, executive director of an organization that includes the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center, says there’s good reason to believe the measures called for in Zagar’s bill would achieve their intended effect.
“The research on the effectiveness of structural interventions, such as barriers and safety nets at frequently used locations, indicate that these interventions averted suicides at those sites,” Tarallo-Falk says.
Hartford Police Chief Philip Kasten says his department has responded to the bridge more than 100 times since 2007, and stopped 13 people from jumping, either by brute force or negotiation.
Kasten says his department welcomes any interventions to undermine the likelihood of people jumping in the future.
“This is a very traumatic and brutal death, jumping from the bridge,” Kasten says. “And it’s very traumatic and brutal and taxing on everyone involved.”
Tarallo-Falk says eliminating the opportunity at this particular location would likely result in reduced incidents of suicide on the whole. The old adage, “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” doesn’t actually hold true in the case of suicide, according to Tarallo-Falk. And 90 percent of people who attempt suicide unsuccessfully once do not go on to die from suicide later on.
“The research clearly shows that most suicidal crises pass if the person can get beyond the window of crisis without hurting themselves,” Falk says.
Colchester Rep. Pat Brennan, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, says lawmakers will consider the cost and effectiveness of various infrastructure proposals from the Agency of Transportation before deciding how to proceed.
For lawmakers like Rep. Larry Fiske, a Republican from Enosburg Fall, the path forward is clear. And when Brennan asked at the end of the hearing Tuesday if lawmakers had any questions, Fiske responded.
“I don’t think any questions are required,” Fiske said. “I think action is required.”