Jul 26, 2014
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City Aims to Deter Bridge Suicides

Rancho Santa Margarita officials ask staff to explore barriers, nets, signs and other ideas.

City Aims to Deter Bridge Suicides

Two years ago, Jerry Holloway was the mayor of Rancho Santa Margarita and called a special meeting to address what appeared to be a rash of suicides, or suicide attempts, off local bridges.

On Wednesday, in his last meeting before an election will determine his successor, Holloway made an impassioned plea to fellow City Council members to take up the fight again.

And they did.

Fencing, barriers, netting, signs, phones, public information -- all of it is in play as the city tries to curtail RSM's bridges as an attractive suicide destination, particularly the Santa Margarita Parkway Bridge.

"The last time we visited this ... it was no secret I was interested in a fencing option as a preventative measure, and the council at that time decided that was not the direction it wanted to go," Holloway said. "Since then, a number of things have changed. The trend is continuing, in terms of these incidents. One of the questions we had back in '10 was: Was this an anomaly or something that's going to continue? Now, we have a little better idea, and have seen it has continued and is likely to continue, based on history."

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There have been seven deaths off bridges inside the city limits. Since 2011, only one of the city's seven suicides was by jumping.

Lt. Brian Schmutz, chief of police services, said 2012 has been an active year on local bridges for cops and those in despair. The heroics of local deputies have pointed even more attention to the bridge activity.

Schmutz said Orange County Sheriff deputies have grabbed two potential jumpers, off the Antonio Parkway and Banderas bridges, and talked one jumper off the Santa Margarita Parkway Bridge, which experienced one suicide. All of these incidents have occurred since April.

In addition to the death of Michele McKay of Lake Forest, who was discovered four days after her Sept. 4 jump, was the death of Stephen Beckman of Las Flores. His death was not cited by Schmutz because he jumped off the Oso Parkway Bridge just outside the city limits over the summer. Beckman, who had mental illness, had survived a jump off the Santa Margarita Parkway Bridge in 2011—the only person to survive a fall from the 63-foot high span.

The Banderas Bridge, from which sheriff deputy Tim Africano held a teenaged boy with one arm until help arrived, does have a containment fence on it; the boy was on the outside of the fence while Africano straddled the top of it.

"I'm absolutely convinced our bridges in Rancho Santa Margarita are safe for their intended purpose," Mayor Tony Beall said, "but what we're talking about is for unintended purposes, how do we stop these things from happening?"

The city has moved in the past to correct issues on the Santa Margarita Parkway Bridge, raising the railing 18 inches and installing additional lighting, for a combined cost of about $600,000. Two deaths on that bridge, prior to bolstering the railing and lighting, were accidental.

Holloway said there have been enough studies that show containment fencing decreases the number of suicides from a specific location.

Councilwoman Carol Gamble said she was impressed by the engravings at the 9/11 Memorial and said signs in that vein, laying flat on the railing, might be preferable to a suicide prevention sign on a 5-foot pole 35 feet from the end of the bridge.

"I would like to hear from experts ... but if we can do something that's within our power and purview, one small step, to tell one person we do care, I would be all for that," Gamble said. "What was so impactful for me at the 9/11 Memorial, you can't go there and not see the engraving right in front of you."

Councilman Jesse Petrilla, who recently went through suicide prevention training through the Army National Guard, indicated that the best way to prevent suicide is to "watch for behaviors, to let people know there are people out there who care about them before they get to the bridge, before they pick up the instrument that they intend to end their life with. ... If somebody is determined to take their life, they will ultimately find the way to accomplish that, as tragic as it may be. If we want to do anything, we should stress to the community to let your friends know you’re there for them and reach out to them."

Petrilla then gave his personal cell phone number for anyone who wants to use him as a suicide sounding board.

Holloway said afterward he was "very happy" that the council supported a move toward allowing the City to do more research on the subject.

"There’s more information to make the decision that was made tonight than there was in 2010," Holloway said. "I’m very disappointed councilman Petrilla wouldn’t even support getting more information, but he’s close-minded on most of his decisions, and this was just more of the same. I was very happy four council members supported it, and I’ll be here whenever staff comes back and take my three minutes as a citizen (during public comments) and hopefully it will go somewhere. I think it will."

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