The family of a Phoenix woman who jumped to her death from the Hoover Dam bypass bridge said it would like to see higher guardrails and stronger security measures to deter suicides.
“We are in support of providing stronger safety measures at the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge in the hope that they will deter future tragic occurrences,” reads a statement issued Thursday by the family of Heather Price Papayoti.
Papayoti left a Jan. 10 behavioral counseling meeting in Tempe, Ariz., and took a cab more than 280 miles to the Nevada border, where she managed to crawl over the 5-foot-tall railing and jump 900 feet into the Colorado River below just before the sun set.
She was the seventh person to commit suicide at the bridge since it opened in October 2010.
“We are mourning the loss of our beautiful Heather, wife, daughter, sister (in law), aunt and friend,” reads the statement, which was issued by Maria Papayoti, Heather’s sister-in-law.
“We were blessed with her laughter and light for all the years we shared with her. Sadly the darkness of depression and anxiety consumed her in recent months and despite treatment, she was unable to conquer it.”
Whether the family’s wish becomes a reality largely depends on whether the Nevada Department of Transportation thinks it is necessary and can develop a plan and find the money, federal highway officials in Washington, D.C., said Thursday.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Francesca Bosco, a Boulder City resident, was on the bridge just before Papayoti leaped to her death. She captured some of the final moments of Papayoti’s life while taking sunset pictures between 4:50 and 5 p.m.
The photo shows a woman with long wavy hair and dressed in black peering over the railing with her arms folded. The woman was later identified as Papayoti.
An Arizona cab parked in a no-parking zone on the bridge can be seen in the background, the cab possibly backing up. The cab’s presence surprised Bosco.
By the time Bosco walked to the other end of the bridge, Papayoti had disappeared, she recounted. The cabdriver got out of his cab and started looking for Papayoti. Bosco and a South African couple joined the search.
The woman had left a purse and a jacket inside the cab, and “Just like that she was gone,” said Bosco a few days after the suicide.
“We had a feeling she jumped because there is nowhere else she could have gone so fast. I feel so bad. I wish there was something I could have done, but there’s nothing I could do by then.”
Metro police were dispatched to the scene at 6:15 p.m. Her body was discovered in the Colorado River before midnight.
IDEAS TO BOOST SAFETY
Ways to discourage suicides on the bridge were discussed even before it opened, according to Mary Martini, district engineer for the Nevada Department of Transportation.
One solution was to install nets to catch the jumpers, but that was rejected amid fears it would only lure “daredevils” who would try to test its strength, she said.
Another idea was to install 6- to 8-foot transparent Plexiglas shields, but that would defeat the purpose of the pedestrian walkway, which gives tourists a view of Hoover Dam upriver and the Colorado River below, she said.
Over time, authorities theorized, the Plexiglas would become “opaque” and a likely a magnet for vandals who’d want to spray-paint it, she said.
And both measures would cost “millions of dollars,” Martini said, adding that the improvements would also have to be OK’d by the Federal Highway Administration.
A spokesman for the federal agency said if the Nevada Department of Transportation wants to make changes to the bridge, including the construction of higher guardrails, then it needs to submit a plan.
“We’re not in charge of maintaining the bridge,” said Doug Hecox, a spokesman with the agency, in a telephone interview. “That’s the state’s job.”
Martini, in the defense of the state, said the guardrail, even though it seems short, is actually taller than standard guardrails on many state bridges. She said the railing was never intended to prevent somebody from committing suicide.
“It’s to prevent people from falling over,” Martini said. “Can you crawl over it? Yes. But if we made the guardrails on the bridge any higher, it would have prevented people from being able to see the dam.”
The sidewalk and guardrails weren’t even part of the bridge’s original design, she said. But then state engineers thought it better to include them because they were afraid motorists would stop their cars in the middle of the bridge to catch the great view, disrupting traffic.
To get to the sidewalk, Payaroti had to crawl over a concrete wall that was higher than the railing itself — at 5 feet 6 inches.
The bypass is a “bridge of national significance” because of its proximity to the Hoover Dam. As such, Martini said, there’s always going to be “a certain amount of attraction to the place.”
“I don’t think we could engineer enough ways to prevent somebody from committing suicide off the bridge,” she said. “If somebody is determined to do it, then they are going to do it.”
NO AGENCY PATROLS BRIDGE
Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Hoover Dam Police, agrees. The police patrol the dam and operate under the auspices of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, she said. The bridge is not in their jurisdiction.
“Nobody patrols the bridge,” she said, with the exception of occasional highway patrol officers passing through or the Metropolitan Police Department in cases of crimes or suicides.
The bridge has no telephones such as those at the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area for people who are despondent and need help. There are no signs telling suicide jumpers to think twice. There are no phone numbers for them to call if they need help.
“It’s out in the middle of nowhere, and nobody seems to care,” said Bosco, who can’t help but think that the dam’s police officers could have responded more quickly to her calls for help.
When she first informed them of a possible jumper, running to the parking lot below, she said none moved quickly on the information, and that one of the officers didn’t even get out of his vehicle.
“It was my 14-year-old son who ran all the way up the stairs to see if he could see where the poor woman had fallen,” she said.
“We were hoping she might have just been badly injured on the rocks or something.”
When Bosco told the dam police officers that she had photographs, officers told her to email the pictures to them so that they could investigate, but then quickly asked her to delete the image of Papayoti.
“It’s as though they didn’t want to acknowledge that it happened or could happen,” Bosco said.
Davis said the Hoover Dam police officers are “professional and acted accordingly,” and that they would never make such a request for somebody to delete a photograph.
Contact reporter Tom Ragan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512.