Thoughts on a teen-age tragedy

April 12, 1994

How do you stop teen-agers from doing stupid teen-age things, like playing chicken on railroad tracks, or scaling water towers or clambering beneath a bridge high above frigid waters?

If Ray and Kelly Jacob of Cape St. Claire in Anne Arundel County had the answer, their son, Michael, would still be alive, playing guitar and writing poetry. Michael, who sounded like an intelligent, introspective young man, died Saturday night when he fell off a catwalk under the U.S. 50 bridge, plunging 80 feet into the Severn River near Annapolis.

Whether anyone or anything could have stopped him is hard to say; a teen-ager's stubbornness and sense of invincibility can be impervious to advice or deterrents. Still, accidents such as this should not be written off as an inevitable consequence of youthful foolishness. In many cases, adults are guilty of not doing everything they could have to make dangerous pranks as inconvenient as possible.

In this case, the State Highway Administration acknowledges that, while it took a "determined effort" for Michael Jacob to reach the catwalk, the feat was not superhuman. That is because a wooden ladder, which bridge inspectors used to climb to the catwalk, was positioned under the east end of the bridge.

The ladder has since been removed, and SHA is now examining all its other bridges to see if access needs to be tightened. The agency seems genuinely concerned about preventing another such tragedy. It's just a shame that the SHA didn't notice until it was too late that the ladder posed a temptation for teen-agers.

Apparently neighbors did notice. They told police afterward that they had seen youths climbing on the catwalk several times in the past. Those comments make us wonder if any of these people ever called police or the SHA to report the incidents and, if so, whether their warnings fell into a vacuous state bureaucracy.

Ideally, parents should have as much influence as anyone over their children's ability to say "no" to dangerous hi-jinks. Maybe this tragedy is a reminder that many of us need to work harder at inculcating a sense of life's fragility and preciousness in our children.

Perhaps children, for whom life seems so endless and indestructible, need constant reminders that a false step or a foolish mistake can mean a premature end. Some won't listen. But some will.

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