Notes of encouragement placed on the Hilliard Road bridge are a stark reminder that the high-level bridge is a spot where lives can end.
Since 2014, Rocky River police have received 11 emergency calls about someone in crisis on the 860-foot long bridge over the Rocky River valley. Police saved eight, but the other three jumped.
The most recent occurred on Aug. 17 when a 19-year-old Cleveland woman put on her hazard lights and stopped her car on the bridge at 5:35 p.m. The woman, a Miami University sophomore studying journalism, then got out and disappeared, as several motorists watched in disbelief.
Cuyahoga County planners hope the safety plans they have will prevent future deaths.
Plans for the estimated $39-$54 million Hilliard Road bridge replacement project include replacing the current rails with a taller vandal protection fence. Bridge construction is tentatively planned to start in 2023.
The drive behind the fence is simple: Prevention. The added height might deter people from jumping the bridge or from climbing over the rails. At least, that is the hope.
Safety is a large part of the redesign and reconstruction of the deteriorating, 96-year-old bridge, Rocky River Mayor Pam Bobst said.
"The entire bridge is going to be rebuilt and while its final design is being narratively discussed, we are already exploring those safety features," she said.
The other bridges over the Rocky River valley have fences: Lake Road, Clifton Boulevard, Interstate 90 and Lorain Road. The drop is around 130 feet from all those bridges.
Fencing was added to the Lorain Road Bridge because of Fairview Park mother, Michelle Biggins. She campaigned for four years to persuade Cleveland and Fairview Park officials to add safety fencing to the Lorain Road Bridge after her 24-year-old daughter jumped from it in 2004. They launched the Mindy Mending Bridges Project 10 years later on the day after she and her husband were stopped on the bridge because of police activity after someone had jumped from the bridge.
"If we can save one life, that's what our mission was," Biggins said in an interview in 2019 after Fairview officials agreed to install an 8-foot-high vinyl-coated fence across the span of the bridge.
"It's been a long road,” she said. “We prevailed by being persistent."
Rocky River police have crisis intervention training for these calls, Police Chief George Lichman said. Though the Hilliard Bridge is in Rocky River, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Cleveland Metroparks Police.
“Around two-thirds of our officers have crisis intervention training to better communicate with people in crisis,” Lichman said. “This helps because they can share the resources available for who these people can talk to.”
September is Suicide Awareness Month and Cuyahoga County officials are taking many steps, including increasing the height of railings on bridges, to discourage and maybe prevent suicides. So far this year, there have been 70 suicides countywide. In 2020, there were 159 cases and in 2019 there were 208.
The county’s campaign, “Life is Better with You Here,” kicked off with bright yellow billboards popping up across the county. The campaign is being run by the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County, which offers 24/7 services year-round.
“When we put out these campaigns, we want to make sure that people understand that all kinds of services in Cuyahoga County are free for any residents,” said Beth DeJesus, director of the board’s external affairs. “They can get them by calling our hotline and can also get a referral to service even if they haven’t gotten to crisis level yet.”
The fences are just a part of local suicide prevention efforts. “We offer QPR training, which is Question, Persuade, Refer,” said Charde’ Hollins, a licensed independent social worker and co-chair of the Cuyahoga County Suicide Prevention Coalition.
“By recognizing those warning signs of suicide crisis, knowing how to ask questions, how to persuade and how to find proper channels for support,” Hollins said. “It can change lives.”
Suicide prevention (training) is like your airbag, Hollins said. People never know when their airbags will go off, during a tap or during a total wreck, but they are happy to have them.
Hollins and DeJesus want people to continue to learn about suicide prevention and the different accompanying behavioral components.
“We want people to get educated before they have to be affected,” DeJesus said.
Efforts to reach the family of the woman who committed suicide last month were unsuccessful. A memorial has been set up along the fence alongside St. Mark Catholic Church in Cleveland. The memorial is for her and another female, who also attended St. Mark school who committed suicide in June.
Information on the "Life is Better With You Here" campaign can be found at withyouhereCLE.org. The board’s service hotline is 216-623-6888. The group also offers year-round training on prevention methods and disseminating information.
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