Bid to stop suicides on bridges is praised

Emergency phones on Bay, Key spans overdue, some say

`Worth whatever the cost'

September 18, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Lt. Michael Greenhawk knows he probably will be called upon to search for another body in the murky waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The Anne Arundel County firefighter doesn't expect the installation of emergency phones to prevent every suicide from the state's longest bridge.

But he hopes the phones will reduce the number.

"I think some people will see them and think twice," he said. "It might be all it takes."

Some say the Maryland Transportation Authority's decision to place phones on the Bay and Key bridges -- and allow people who are considering jumping to talk to someone trained in suicide prevention -- is a measure that's 50 years too late. Nonetheless, the move is being praised by health advocates and public safety officials, and by those who for years have thought their loved ones might have picked up a phone if one had been there.

"These phones are so important," said Lisa Hurka Covington, president of SPEAK -- Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids -- an advocacy group in Towson. "This is something that touches real people's lives."

For rescuers such as Greenhawk, the phones provide the means for someone to intervene before people jump, rather than reacting by racing to pull them from the water with slim hope of reviving them.

People such as Pam Gloss, whose 21-year-old daughter, Susan, is one of the hundreds who have jumped to their deaths from the Bay Bridge since it opened in 1952, say the phones might prevent another tragedy.

Almost every major bridge in the United States has an emergency phone system -- from New York's George Washington Bridge to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge -- in part to prevent suicides. In Maryland, the Bay and Francis Scott Key bridges will be the first to have emergency phones.

The phones aren't just for suicide prevention, however. For those who fear crossing the bridge and for those who find themselves with a flat tire -- and without a cell phone -- the emergency phones will be a safety measure that never existed.

"It's a positive step to helping citizens in a time of trouble," said John M. Scholz, Anne Arundel County Fire Division chief.

And the phones might calm the nightmares of motorists such as Chip Tate, who has witnessed a suicide on the bridge not once, but twice. The 24-year-old Annapolis salesman had no way of alerting anyone.

"I could never shake the feeling that if there had been a phone, or if I had been one car closer, maybe I could've done something," he said.

Pam Gloss has wondered for a long time whether her daughter might have picked up a phone the Sunday night she drove her Honda Civic to the Bay Bridge, distraught over a fight she'd recently had with her boyfriend.

That was in 1993.

But in all the years of mourning, she continues to be haunted by the thought that something might have prevented her daughter's suicide.

Her daughter's friends also wish something or someone could have stopped the Anne Arundel Community College freshman who loved dill pickles and pizza, daisies and the color yellow.

"They all suffered too," Gloss said. "They all loved her so dearly."

Police found Susan's car and a note she had left on the front seat. But Gloss said it wasn't until five months later when her daughter's body surfaced that she could begin to grasp what had happened.

"I was still hoping she had walked off the bridge, that she left the note to scare her boyfriend, that she changed her mind and hitched a ride," said Gloss, who lives in Severna Park. "You conjure up all kinds of things that could've happened rather than accept the reality of what has happened. You grab for anything, because it would be better than this.

"I almost wished she had been kidnapped, because at least then she would have been alive," she said.

Even before police confirmed Susan's identity from dental records, Gloss knew the recovered body was her daughter's. She recognized the gold bracelet Susan had gotten for her 21st birthday.

It was made of X's and O's. Hugs and kisses.

Until now, Gloss said, "I don't think there's been much effort to prevent these tragedies."

If a phone could help just one person, she said, "It is worth whatever the cost."

For almost a decade, advocates such as Hurka Covington and Barbara Bellack, head of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Maryland, have been lobbying state politicians for phones on bridges.

"They save lives. That's what this is all about," said Hurka Covington.

Hurka Covington said her father helped design tunnels and bridges, including the Key Bridge, and that made the issue more important for her. She regularly faxes information to officials, calls them, writes to them and calls them back. "These people are holding lives in their hands," she said.

For years, she and Bellack say, they've been arguing with officials who worry that talking about suicide will encourage others to take their own lives. "It's like saying teaching teen-agers about condoms to prevent HIV will encourage them to have sex," Bellack said.

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