STEVENSVILLE — In response to pressure from Eastern Shore residents concerning recent incidents that left motorists deadlocked for several hours leading to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Maryland Transportation Authority officials are weighing solutions to the agency’s handling of certain crises.
MDTA Police responded on Aug. 20 and Oct. 3 to the westbound span of the Bay Bridge for reports of an individual threatening to jump from the bridge. Rescuers’ efforts to prevent the person from committing suicide ended successfully but prompted lane closures and consequent hours- and miles-long traffic backups.
The agency’s Executive Director Jim Ports confirmed the two separate suicide attempts involved the same individual. Ports said the individual’s first crisis in August, which gridlocked traffic for nearly a full 24 hours, ended when rescuers convinced the man to retreat from the bridge’s ledge. The second crisis lasted more than 9 hours and again ended safely for the individual.
“I’m not sure how to prevent these,” Ports said during a meeting with the Bay Bridge Reconstruction Advisory Group (BBRAG) Wednesday, Oct. 7. “The first time, we suggested this gentleman get mental health help, but that doesn’t come from us. We have no control over that.”
The man threatening to jump reportedly had breached a gate that is designed to keep unauthorized people from ascending the bridge’s towers. An eyewitness to the Oct. 3 incident said the man had “climbed right over” the gate.
MDTA’s Chief Engineer Will Pines said his team is going to “take a look to see if the anti-climb measures could be enhanced at the bridge.” Pines said he personally has walked on the cables where the man was perched during the incident.
“The shielding we have there is designed so that your typical person would not climb around it if they were not actually considering falling to their demise,” he said. “You have to have a desire to potentially be in harm’s way to climb around the shield that we have there today.”
Pines’s comments were in response to people suggesting the individual might have been seeking attention by climbing the bridge and had no intention of committing suicide.
While the man involved in the two recent incidents did not ultimately fall from the bridge, BBRAG members pushed for the MDTA and state lawmakers to come up with a way to prevent further mental health crises from culminating on the bridge. Many such incidents end fatally.
The group’s discussion at its onset was focused on streamlining a path to mental health treatment for people who are rescued from the bridge during a mental health crisis. Ports said he didn’t know why the individual who was talked down in August and last week had not been admitted to a health facility following the August incident.
“I’m not sure whether he was denied or not, but he decided to go at it a second time,” Ports said, adding the MDTA’s control does not extend to mandating that individuals undergo mental health treatment. “That comes from a judge,” he said.
There currently is no law in place to criminalize a suicide attempt on a bridge. But many suggested the man’s actions on the bridge prevented emergency medical personnel from accessing patients because the roads were jammed with stopped vehicles. Emergency services immobility is a recurring complaint of regular summer traffic backups at the bridge.
Others said people who live on Kent Island and nearby areas on the Shore were not able to leave their homes or travel across the bridge for any reason during the cumulative roughly 30 hours spent on both rescue missions.
Ports said he urged responders to leave the bridge open to traffic, but it ultimately was temporarily closed for periods of time during both incidents. He said the issue preventing crews from allowing traffic to flow is the potential for motorists to interfere with rescuers’ equipment or accidentally run into it while driving if they’re not given enough of a lane clearing.
The group’s talk then graduated to other prospective solutions and deterrents, such as placing a net under the bridge — much like the one beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in California — to catch people.
BBRAG Chairman Tracy Schulz shot down the idea of a net, though many residents of Queen Anne’s and Anne Arundel counties, between which the bridge is located, have suggested attaching a net for years.
“What people have found out is that when people jump, they climb out of the net and jump — or they have climbers who have to go out on the edge and get the (person) back,” Schulz said of netting’s efficiency in deterring suicides. “Nets are not a very good option.”
Schulz, who is first assistant fire chief of Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department, responded to the bridge with rescuers for both incidents.
“None of us wants to be out there. None of us wants to see this happen,” he said.
Schulz said he was thankful that none of the responders were harmed during the rescue, which according to a protected source, involved rescuers climbing narrow ladders inside the bridge’s tower for 45 minutes and up more than 150 feet.
Ports reiterated his perplexed disposition concerning the public’s desire for MDTA to solve the issue of suicide attempts on the bridge.
“I’m not sure what the public wants us to do in a situation like this. I know people say, ‘Push them over,’ ‘Make them jump,’” Ports said. “(Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary) Greg Slater and I have had these conversations, and we basically say, ‘What if it’s one of your family members?’”
Ports continued, saying, "There are people who want to commit suicide. Unfortunately, they use a bridge.” There are protocols in place to work with these individuals, he said, and ultimately, “It’s about saving lives.”
People may not agree with that, he said — nodding to those who are angered by the traffic backups these crises sometimes cause — but saving lives is the priority.