Officials seek to prevent suicides on Victory Bridge
After the deaths of 22 individuals who jumped off of the Victory Bridge since 2004, Perth Amboy city officials and local residents are asking for a fence to be built alongside the 110-foot bridge in order to prevent further incidents.
Perth Amboy city officials sent a resolution to Gov. Chris Christie and the state Assembly last week requesting that funds for a safety fence along the town’s Victory Bridge be included in the N.J. Department of Transportation’s budget, said Wilda Diaz, mayor of Perth Amboy.
“[The assembly] has to understand that this is a serious issue,” Diaz said. “How many more lives are we going to lose and risk?”
The bridge, which sits along Route 35 and connects Perth Amboy to Sayreville, has become known as the “suicide bridge” due to the alarming number of attempted suicides in recent years, including a young mother and her baby, said Ken Balut, president of the Perth Amboy City Council.
Balut said the bridge’s design offers a tempting location for troubled individuals to make jump attempts because of its easy access.
“The problem is that there’s no thinking on this bridge,” Balut said. “By the time you stop the car, you can be off the bridge.”
The city has reacted to the suicide problem with a series of preventive measures, with a fence being the only protective option left, said Councilman Fernando Gonzales.
“At this point in time, we have tried everything we can, including having the police [patrol] the bridge, but beyond that there is not a whole lot we can do,” Gonzalez said.
Suicide hotline signs were placed on the bridge to offer a hopeful alternative to potential jumpers, said Diaz. The city also offers a mental health center for troubled people as well as for the families of those who have committed suicide.
Diaz expressed concerns not just for the suicide victims, but also for the safety of the rescue and search teams that are on-call for these types of occasions.
“The biggest issue is that you also put other people at risk, [such as] the safety personnel,” she said. “What people don’t understand is that those waters have a current.”
Rescue workers, including the police and fire departments, have to endure the Raritan River’s currents — oftentimes at night, Balut said. The city is also affected through the substantial funds required for search boats and resources.
Perth Amboy officials have been pressuring the State Assembly and the Department of Transportation for a few years, with requests for the fence dating back to 2007 and 2008, said Tim Greeley, spokesperson for NJDOT.
Jim Simpson, commissioner of NJDOT, issued a letter to Assemblyman Craig Coughlin this past December reiterating that the department has no plans to move forward with the fence due to costs and prioritization, Greeley said.
“We determined it would be cost-prohibitive,” he said. “We have to prioritize and put [resources] towards projects that we feel can maximize the value of those dollars in terms of safety and infrastructure and improvement.”
Despite the recent controversy regarding the issue, NJDOT’s position remains unchanged, Greeley said.
Last month, Perth Amboy native Ron Snipes gained attention in the news after he successfully prevented a man from jumping from the bridge. Snipes grabbed the man as he was about to jump off the bridge and held onto him until the police arrived.
Snipes said that due to the tough economic times, there is an added risk for people who suffer from depression and know that the bridge is known as a “suicide spot.” The problem, he says, affects the entire state.
“Lots of people in the past have come from Freehold [and] from Sayreville,” Snipes said. “It’s a bridge that goes to the major highways.”
Jeff Dingler, a University alumnus and a Sayreville resident, said he crosses the bridge frequently and doesn’t think a fence would be enough to keep troubled people from committing suicide.
“I think the idea has good intentions, but I don’t see how that would prevent people from jumping off something else if they really had suicidal intentions,” Dingler said. “I think people would find a way to climb over it if their intentions were serious enough.”
Balut said he thinks a fence would at least make it harder to jump from the bridge and give people more time to think.
“When you have a fence, it’s not as easy [to jump],” he said. “If it took five minutes [to jump], a person has time to think about it, and there’s always somebody who can catch them.”
The bridge, which began as a drawbridge in 1928, was reconstructed and reopened in 2004. The new bridge was much taller, since boats could now pass directly underneath it without having to stop traffic to lift for boats, according to a mycentraljersey.com article.
The original design of the bridge was presented with a built-in fence, but the previous Perth Amboy administration changed the plans for unclear reasons, Balut said. The bridge was also not meant to be as tall as it stands now.
“That’s the problem when there is political interference,” Balut said. “This is not the first bridge that has ever been built. This design should have had a fence covering.”
Snipes said he agrees that the bridge was poorly designed, recalling his initial reaction to the size of the bridge.
“How can you design a bridge that’s a mile long and not think about safety?” Snipes said. “They don’t think anyone will jump?”
Snipes said N.J. residents should start a grassroots petition stressing the need for a safety fence — an idea that Balut endorses as well.
Diaz said she has made it one of her missions to get a fence built along the bridge since she took office, and she wants to increase awareness of the issue in the hopes of pressuring the assembly to fund the fence.