Four suicides from the Hoover Dam bypass bridge have transportation officials pondering a deadly question they considered years ago while designing the 900-foot tall span.
If engineers throw up a net or erect a fence on the Hoover Dam bypass bridge, will it keep distressed visitors from committing suicide? Or will it simply detract from the aesthetics of the longest concrete-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere?
The Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge created a buzz in engineering circles worldwide and was named a civil engineering wonder comparable to Hoover Dam. It also rivals the dam when it comes to tourist attractions.
Before the 2010 opening of the bypass bridge, the highest landmarks in Southern Nevada were casinos where visitors have difficulty accessing rooftops or face security officers and tall fences that deter guests from climbing to dangerous levels.
During its first year, there were no reported suicides from the span. This year, four people have scaled the 4-foot-6-inch concrete-and-metal railing and leapt into the Colorado River. Two suicides have occurred within the past two weeks.
Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, told USA Today earlier this year that places such as Niagara Falls, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building are called "suicide landmarks" because of the frequency of jumpers.
"There are sites around the world that, primarily because of media publicity, become known as where someone goes to die by suicide," Berman told the newspaper. "The magical thinking involved in their mind is that 'I will get all of this attention by engaging in a public suicide.' "
Is it possible the bypass bridge could join the nation's list of macabre monuments? Dr. Richard Seiden, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, believes it has potential.
"They (landmarks) develop a reputation of their own. You can be certain it will get worse before it gets better," Seiden said. "That's what's going to happen unless steps are taken."
Nevada Department of Transportation representatives said they plan to discuss potential preventative measures on the bypass bridge, which could result in costly solutions such as netting or fencing or less expensive options such as suicide hotline phones.
"We are constantly monitoring the situation," said Damon Hodge, spokesman for the department. "Whatever we propose, the Federal Highway Administration would have to approve it."
Seiden suggested 8-foot concrete columns placed closely together so tourists could still capture the unique view of Hoover Dam, but jumpers wouldn't be able to squeeze through the spaces.
Three dozen people have jumped from the Empire State building since it was built in 1931. Higher fencing was placed around the observatory deck in 1947 after a series of suicides.
A similar battle over preventive measures has brewed for decades in San Francisco, where the Golden Gate Bridge has long been the world's most popular place to commit suicide. In its 75 years of existence, 1,558 people have hurled themselves over the railing, the majority plunging nearly 700 feet to their death.
In 2008, San Francisco officials agreed to install a safety net below the 4-foot railing, but the cost to do so on the 9,000-foot span is said to hover around $45 million.
The price tag probably would be less on the 1,900-foot bypass bridge that links Nevada and Arizona.
As Northern California transportation agencies await funding for installation of the Golden Gate bridge netting, suicide hotline phones have been installed.
The signs along the Golden Gate read: "Crisis Counseling. There Is Hope. Make the Call. The consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic."
Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Rose Davis said her agency recently received funding from a Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act grant to buy and install a dozen call boxes.
Psychiatrists who specialize in suicides have performed studies that show netting or fencing can help prevent deaths because many times the jumpers are acting impulsively.
Permits are needed to buy a gun, and prescriptions are necessary for pills; bridges and tall structures are readily available.
Government officials have argued that deterrents are ineffective because a suicidal person will find an alternative method of killing themselves. Seiden, a behavioral scientist, doesn't buy it and conducted a study that supported his opinion.
His study showed that of 500 potential jumpers pulled from the Golden Gate Bridge railing, 94 percent are either still living or died from natural causes nearly three decades later. Of the 30 who jumped into the San Francisco Bay and survived the plunge, only three later took their own lives.
Kevin Hines was 19 years old and suffering from a bipolar disorder when he decided to end his pain by leaping over the railing of the Golden Gate in 2000.
"When my hands left that rail - and my legs curled over - as soon as I left the bridge, I thought, 'I don't want to die,' " Hines told Time Magazine in 2006. "It's a four-second fall, and in those four seconds I said, 'God please help me.' "
Hines survived the fall and now helps others in distress and is a frequent guest at speaking engagements related to depression.
During the course of his study, Seiden learned that most potential jumpers have a fantasy about how they want to die. If their efforts to kill themselves in a particular manner are thwarted, they are unlikely to change paths and immediately go find another way to commit suicide.
Most jumpers leap off the bay side of the Golden Gate Bridge where pedestrians are permitted; the pathway on the ocean side is designated for bicyclists. Seiden said he spoke with one man who wanted to jump from the ocean side but backed out of his plan.
"When I asked him why, he said, 'I didn't want to cross the bridge and get hit by a car,' " Seiden said. "He had a fantasy in mind, and it takes a lot to switch it."
Although he too believes netting or fencing would stop jumpers, not all of those in distress are deterred by safeguards. Earlier this year, a man scaled a 30-foot railing and jumped over Niagara Falls.
Officials at the Nevada Department of Transportation are expected to discuss the matter during their August or September meeting.
Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at email@example.com or 702-387-2904.