By David Stabler, The Oregonian, Feb. 2, 2013
From two blocks away, Bonnie Kahn sees the flashing lights of police cars under the Vista Bridge.
No, not again.
Kahn jerks her car to a stop in front of her office, right below the bridge. A body lies in the road, 20 feet away, on a cold, January afternoon. Someone has covered it.
“I’ve had it,” Kahn says, putting both hands on top of her car and breaking into sobs. “I’ve just had it.”
This is the seventh suicide Kahn is aware of in the seven years she’s worked on Southwest Jefferson Street. Her office window looks directly at the bridge.
Five police cars can’t block the view as the medical examiner uncovers the body of a young woman with red fingernails. Passing cars and TriMet trains crawl past. Drivers slow, riders stare out the window, noontime runners crane their necks.
Tears stream down her face as Kahn walks up to a police officer who stands near the body.
“Can’t you do something?” she says. “We need fences. It’s time. It’s just ridiculous.”
The officer says he doesn’t have a voice to persuade the authorities.
“Yes, you do,” Kahn says, then turns away.
“I’m so mad,” she says. “Who was she? Why? I wish I could have talked to her up there. Held her hand. What about her family? It’s horrible.”
Her name is Aris Bishop. She is 19.
Ripples can last decades
Most people who kill themselves choose ordinary places: garages, bedrooms, bathrooms. But in Portland, some end their lives at the Vista Bridge, a bridge built in 1926 in the West Hills that spans MAX tracks and a busy street. Tourists and TV shows love the bridge, but a suicide there can haunt hundreds of people, beginning with family and friends and radiating out to commuters, drivers, children, nearby businesses and neighbors.
The public nature and increasing numbers of Vista Bridge suicides raise questions about whether the city of Portland should do more to prevent them. Would adding nets or fences impede jumpers, or send them elsewhere? At minimum, should crisis phones be installed?
The questions raise issues of design, cost, altering a historic bridge and addressing the mystery and ugliness of suicide.
The ripples begin with a jump and can last decades.
It’s just before noon, Feb. 16, 2011. In the final moments of his life, a man walks along the icy sidewalk of the Vista Bridge. A mix of rain and snow falls, muting the bridge’s glamorous views of the city and snow-capped mountains.
Tall and athletic, the man walks briskly, as if he’s late.
Just past the midpoint of the bridge, he jumps onto the railing, then jumps back onto the sidewalk.
A block away, former Portland Mayor Bud Clark is on his way out the door of his apartment. He glances out his window, which looks down on the bridge. He sees the man and freezes. The man jumps onto the railing and dives off.
He takes less than three seconds to fall 12 stories.
At 11:54 a.m., Portland police Officer Herbert Miller responds to a report that a person has jumped from the Vista Bridge. Miller finds a man lying on his back in the center of the MAX tracks. Blood trickles from both ears. Few survive a jump from the Vista Bridge.
Firefighters pronounce the man dead. The medical examiner arrives. Detectives are called. Police officers halt traffic along Jefferson Street, which runs directly underneath the bridge. MAX suspends trains east and west.
Police check the man’s ID: His name is William Matthew Pope, he’s 27 and he lives just blocks away. Pope’s belongings — $130 in cash, wallet, keys and ID — accompany the body to the medical examiner’s office.
An employee from NRC Environmental Services arrives to clean up with a hose.
Hours later, Therese Schwenkler returns home from work in Boise. Her phone rings.
Did you hear what happened to Will?
What do you mean?
Schwenkler expects to hear a funny story about her former boyfriend, the man who called her Li’l Schwenk and did Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations and gave her piggyback rides when her knees hurt.
But the story isn’t funny.
She hangs up and calls Pope’s phone, unable to believe it’s true. She texts him, over and over.
Eighteen days after Pope jumps, his family and friends celebrate his life at First United Methodist Church, just down the street from the Vista Bridge.
Friends leave flowers and notes on the bridge. One is from Larissa: “I will never forget you and how powerful and amazing you were.”
Portland’s 11 water bridges across the Willamette River, including the Fremont and Ross Island bridges, draw suicides, but the Vista Bridge is “far and away the leader for people jumping from any land bridge,” says Portland police Sgt. Pete Simpson.
In 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, three suicides and two attempted suicides occurred at the Vista Bridge. It’s the highest number in 10 years.
When compared with the city’s 24 homicides in 2011, three suicides and two attempts are a lot, says police Sgt. Greg Stewart, who analyzes crimes for the Police Bureau.
“This is a huge issue,” he says. “It’s a lot of human suffering. If we had a place with five homicides on it, we’d be concerned. From our perspective, the bridge is a concern.”
But it’s easy to fix, he says.
“The Fremont is way longer, it would be more complicated, expensive. We have a real issue with suicides in Oregon. That argues for using everything we can to address the issue.”
The Vista Bridge is a concern for Kenneth E. Kahn II, too. He’s a criminal lawyer who works below the bridge and he knows the sound of a person hitting the ground from 12 stories up. Legs compress. Spines shatter. Body matter spreads maybe 15 feet.
“You want to know what it sounds like?”
Kahn lifts his hand above his head and smacks his desk with an open palm.
“It’s horrible. Horror doesn’t adequately describe it.”
It’s too easy to jump, he says. The railing is just 46 inches high, and bump-out benches give people a leg up.
“Come look at photos, come to a suicide,” Kahn says. “I think they would quickly see the cocktail niceties of discussing a historic bridge don’t hold a candle to a grisly death scene.”
In seven years, Kahn has seen seven suicides, he says. Each one leaves him shaken.
“It’s just like you’re a big bell, the Liberty Bell. Your emotions are quiet and all of a sudden, someone just rings that bell. It continues to resonate for days.”
For most people, death is a philosophical concept, he says.
“Here, death is real. What strikes me is how sudden it is, from life to death. I don’t look anymore.”
Kahn could move from his office below the bridge, but despite what he calls the “killing machine” above him, he stays.
“Death will continue whether I am here or not.”
The Vista Bridge opened on Dec. 6, 1926, at a cost of $179,999. Five years later, The Oregonian reported that a man jumped from the bridge, possibly the Vista’s first suicide. From the beginning, people called it “Suicide Bridge.”
Fences or nets are the most effective impediment to bridge suicides, research shows. Leaping off a bridge is more likely an impulsive act, and barriers can reduce suicides from bridges and other structures:
- The Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Harbor Bridge were suicide magnets before barriers went up. At the Prince Edward Viaduct in Toronto, the site of nearly 500 fatal jumps, engineers constructed a $4 million “luminous veil” of stainless-steel rods above the railing. At all of these places, after the barriers were in place, the number of jumpers declined to a handful or even to zero. Suicides at other potential spots did not increase, nor did general suicide rates in those cities.
- After barriers went up on the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C., suicides dropped from four a year to zero. The barriers did not cause an increase of suicides at the nearby Taft Bridge, says Dr. Lanny Berman, who directs the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C. Barriers on the Ellington Bridge cost $600,000, Berman says. “If you amortize the cost of a barrier since 1986 and average two lives saved every year, that’s 52 lives relative to the cost of suicides, bad press, emergency responses. That’s pretty cheap.”
Ex-Mayor Clark, 81, who lives in the Vista St. Clair apartments, would like to see a fence rather than nets on the Vista Bridge.
“Nets, they’d just bounce around,” he says.
Suicide hits close to home for Clark, whose father and grandfather killed themselves. Clark never found out why. “There was no reason for him to do it,” he says of his father’s death at age 59. “It stops with me.”
Phones don’t stop suicides
Unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, which has 13 crisis-line phones along its sidewalks, the Vista Bridge has no phones. For years, it didn’t have signs with crisis phone numbers, either. But, in September, Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, which manages the bridge, placed four signs on the structure listing a phone number for Lines for Life, a nonprofit crisis line for substance abuse and suicide.
“We can help you cross this bridge,” the signs say, with a number: 503-972-3456. Trained professionals answer calls around the clock from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska. No one tracks calls from the Vista Bridge, but since 2008, the total number of suicide-related calls to Lines for Life tripled from 6,500 to 19,000, says the organization’s Leslie Storm.
Is a phone number on the bridge enough?
“Probably not,” Storm says. “Barriers? I think anything that can stop a suicide is a way to go.”
For 10 years, the bridge had no signs because two government agencies failed to communicate. For reasons lost to time, signs listing a Multnomah County crisis line were removed around the same time that the phone number changed, says Cheryl Kuck, a spokesperson for Portland’s Bureau of Transportation.
But phones don’t stop suicides, says Berman of the American Association of Suicidology.
“No data shows this method is effective,” he says. “The presumption that someone who is suicidal is carrying a cellphone is questionable. The only data that exists, both in this country and internationally, regarding prevention of jumping from height, are barriers.”
Restricting or delaying a jumper saves lives, he says.
“Did he feel alone?”
Therese Schwenkler, 28, never thought that William Pope, her happy, impulsive friend, would kill himself. Two years later, the ripples from his death still jolt her with questions.
“Did he think I wasn’t there for him? Did he know how much I cared about him? It’s just so heartbreaking that maybe he didn’t, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
They met when they were students at Gonzaga University in Spokane.
“He walked fast, he talked fast. Will didn’t know how to slow down. He had the biggest, brightest smile. He’d give you the biggest hug. He just made you feel you really mattered. It seemed like everyone loved him.”
They dated for three years, but grew apart after college when she moved to Boise and he settled in Portland. Still, they talked regularly. She’d known him for eight years, better than anyone else.
“Did he feel alone? I just don’t get it. He could have reached out to me, to so many people. I know how impulsive he could be. I’m trying to make sense of it and I can’t.”
On Christmas, Pope’s birthday and Mother’s Day, Schwenkler sends a card to his parents in Spokane.
“I still have moments when I hear his voice. There’s always going to be a deep sadness.”
Because the Vista Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places, the city can’t alter the bridge’s appearance with fences or nets without approval under the National Historic Preservation Act and the State Historic Preservation Office, and perhaps federal and state transportation agencies, depending on where the money comes from.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t alter it,” says David Skilton, in Portland’s Bureau of Development Services. Any design proposal would need to be compatible with the bridge, Skilton says. “We do that all the time. It’s a tricky design problem, but I think we can get there.”
Timothy Heron, a senior city planner and Skilton’s boss, advises caution.
“Let’s have a conversation. Perhaps add something that’s not visually intrusive. Is there a way? Of course, there’s always a solution.”
Without seeing plans for barriers, Heron would not guess at their cost, he said, but a Portland construction estimator calculated the cost of chain-link fences on the Vista Bridge at $42,000.
Any initiative for putting up barriers would have to come from the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
“The city has no plans to add additional suicide-prevention measures, such as fencing, to the Vista Bridge,” says the agency’s Cheryl Kuck.
Focus on other bridges
One person who likes the Vista Bridge without barriers is Tracy J. Prince, who lives in Goose Hollow and wrote a history of the neighborhood.
“It’s just a gorgeous bridge with one of the best views of the city,” she says. “I see tourists stop and take pictures every day.”
Barriers probably wouldn’t help, Prince says. People who want to kill themselves will just go somewhere else. She wishes the media would focus on other bridges, she says.
“If they could create something aesthetically pleasing and fit the historic aspect, OK, but you’d need something on the St. Johns Bridge, too, if your goal is to prevent suicide.”
Suicides on the Vista Bridge are not a topic of discussion at the Goose Hollow Neighborhood Association, she says. Parking, new buildings and density are more pressing issues.
Sixty-two years later, Gretchen Brianna Field still feels the ripples of her father’s suicide at the Vista Bridge.
July 9, 2012, is a warm, sunny day when Field, 65, visits the bridge for the first time. She parks at the north end and, with her son and her dog, starts walking across the bridge. Portland’s skyline and Mount Hood shimmer in the sunlight.
Field just moved to Portland that month and planned a pilgrimage to the bridge to honor her father on the date he died so long ago. She was 3 then, and her mother never told her what happened. Field found out how her father died when she discovered a box of clippings hidden in her mother’s linen closet. She was in her 20s.
As she sits in one of the bridge’s alcoves, the few memories she has of her father flood her: cuddling in his arms, the softness of his T-shirts, a loving look. Next to her bed, she keeps a photo of him decked out in fedora and suit, looking down at her.
Her mother remarried and the man wasn’t kind. Field fantasized about what life would have been like if her father had lived. Maybe her anger, the mental breakdown and toxic relationships with men would never have happened.
Outgoing, athletic, artistically talented, Frederick William Field had been a dentist in Roseburg and contracted multiple sclerosis in college. One day, he got up from his hospital bed in Portland, took a cab to the bridge and jumped.
She stares at the view. She feels like she can see forever.
Suicide prevention resources
- Crisis hotline for Portland and Multnomah County: 503-988-4888
- Washington County: 503-291-9111
- Clackamas County: 503-655-8585
- Clark County: 360-696-9560
- Other Oregon locations: www.suicidehotlines.com/oregon.html
- Lines for Life: 503-972-3456
- Urgent walk-in clinic: Cascadia Behavioral Health Care, 2415 S.E. 43rd Ave. (43rd and Division), Portland; 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily