TAOS — Curly O’Connor clearly recalls watching her son commit suicide at the Rio Grande Gorge.
“I just see him wafting off the edge of the bridge,” she recounted in an interview earlier this month. “It’s just unbelievable.” Unbelievable, too, was how easy it seemed. Cooper Beacom, 23, leaped from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in April as his mother, brother and friend watched. After her son’s death, O’Connor founded the Gorge Bridge Safety Network to advocate for suicide prevention measures at the structure, which stands approximately 650 feet above the Rio Grande.
Plans to erect barriers or nets at the site, which is both a tourist attraction and a draw for those seeking an accessible option to end their own lives, were last mulled in 2009.
The deaths continue, however, with more than 115 in the past 20 years.
Many victims have no connections to the local community, and some even travel across the country to jump from the bridge. The last known victim, in June, was from California.
But Beacom was a Santa Fe resident with roots in Taos, and his death has renewed local interest in the issue and left O’Connor asking how something so wrong can be so easy.
‘On great paths’
“He had moved back home with another chap from Taos — both on great paths,” said O’Connor, a New Zealand native but longtime New Mexico resident. “He was going to community college. He wanted to become a drug and alcohol counselor. He was going to AA, helping other kids in the community.”
Recovering from alcohol and drug addiction himself, Beacom relapsed during a tumultuous moment in a romantic relationship, his mother said.
In crisis, the 23-year-old drove from Santa Fe to Taos on April 29.
O’Connor, who went to the bridge to try to help calm her son, originally thought Beacom was just clearing his head with a walk on the mesa. She panicked, however, when he began walking toward the bridge’s edge.
“I raced. I drove over the bridge and stopped. He had hidden behind this concrete barrier because I think he recognized my car. I jumped out, started trying to talk to him and he just got up and started walking,” O’Connor recounted.
“I was walking, going, ‘Cooper, you know I’m here for you. This doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s take a moment,’ ” she said.
His friend and younger brother arrived, O’Connor recalled. Quickly, she said, Beacom whipped off his glasses and necklace, threw them at his brother and jumped from the bridge.
“And his brother had his hand as he was going over,” she said. “Just that easy. You can’t believe what you’ve seen. And it’s just wrong.”
Firefighters later hiked into the gorge to retrieve Beacom’s body.
It was a hike Jim Fambro, the Taos Volunteer Fire Department chief, said has become familiar — a 35-minute clamber into a traumatizing anatomy lesson.
“Unfortunately, we’re getting good at that trail,” Fambro said. “We do it for the families. We do it for the survivors. But it’s going to kill a firefighter one of these days.”
A longtime advocate for suicide prevention measures at the bridge, the volunteer fire chief is convinced taller railings could save lives.
“Right now, it’s too easy. It’s easier than pulling a trigger. And at the bridge, you can’t change your mind,” Fambro said.
Fambro attributes inertia surrounding suicide prevention at the bridge to a dearth of political leadership.
The New Mexico Department of Transportation is responsible for maintenance of the bridge, but Fambro said it has offered no support in efforts to curb suicides there.
The Department of Transportation received funding during the 2008 legislative session to study measures for reducing suicides at the bridge. The following year, agency officials presented community members with four design options.
No plans were finalized, however, and the ideas were abandoned.
“There are three reasons why conversations like this go away — three myths,” said Eve Meyer, executive director of the San Francisco Suicide Prevention Coalition, which has been integral in efforts to curb suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge.
The discourse that often prevails in communities grappling with a rash of suicides in public places is familiar to Taoseños and is characterized by arguments Meyer has challenged in Northern California.
The first myth, she said, is that preventing suicides in one location will not prevent people from killing themselves, just drive them to do so through other means.
“That was a very logical myth,” Meyer explained, noting the notion was nonetheless disproved by a study of people who were prevented from killing themselves at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Suicides by other means do not typically increase in communities where barriers are installed on a bridge, other research has found.
Safety measures at the bridge will not end suicide, said Laura Harrison, executive director of the New Mexico Suicide Prevention Coalition.
But addressing the obvious issues is a start in reversing an alarming trend, she said, noting incidents of suicide in Taos County have risen during the last three years.
“Putting a barrier on this bridge is step one of a public health approach to suicide,” Harrison said.
The second myth, according to Meyer is “they aren’t hurting anybody.”
“It’s their life, so let them jump,” she said.
This argument not only ignores the experiences of emergency services personnel who retrieve the bodies of suicide victims, Meyer said, but also ignores the families left behind.
“A person’s death is a community cost,” she added.
“The other main myth is that they’re mentally ill,” Meyer said. “Really, they are usually ordinary people who got into some kind of jam. This is an argument about identifying victims as one of us rather than as one of them.”
Although efforts to curb suicides at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge have sputtered, San Francisco is addressing its similarly grim problem and, with other communities, has provided what experts suggest could be worthy examples for Taos.
The allocation of funds earlier this year to put a net beneath the Golden Gate Bridge followed a decadeslong campaign driven by the families of suicide victims and spurred recently by increased media attention.
Community involvement also was characterized as key in Seattle, where an average of four people a year jumped to their deaths from the George Washington Memorial Bridge.
Ryan Thurston, an IBM employee, witnessed more than half a dozen suicides while working from a nearby office in Seattle. The frequency of suicides there was, at one point, only second to the Golden Gate.
Thurston founded an organization, Seattle FRIENDS, in 2006 to advocate for suicide prevention measures at the bridge.
In 2011, Washington state completed construction on an 8-foot-9-inch fence along the bridge’s edge.
“Having everyone at the table is what really sped up this process,” Thurston told The Taos News.
Politicians took on the issue as costs to emergency services mounted and local residents called for action, he said. Community members were then engaged in a design competition.
‘No plans right now’
Despite the New Mexico Department of Transportation having already studied options for suicide prevention measures at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, any campaign to implement those options or other proposals likely would start from square one.
The department does not currently have any plans to install suicide barriers at the bridge, a spokeswoman said.
The agency’s original study found barriers would cost between $6 million and $7 million — a figure public information officer Melissa Dosher suggested would likely be higher today.
“The NMDOT does not have the funding at this time to build the barriers,” she wrote in an email to The Taos News. “Our resources are currently spread throughout the state maintaining and constructing roads.”
But O’Connor and a friend, Laura Haas, are undeterred as they launch a new campaign to spur the state to action.
“Why is this OK with us?” Haas asked rhetorically, noting O’Connor is not the only parent she knows to have lost a child at the bridge.
The two plan to start a petition online at Change.org, but are beginning to develop an understanding of the bureaucracy that has bogged down previous efforts.
However complicated the legislative process may be, however, O’Connor said the issue is simple.
“I knew that day that something has to change,” she said.
The Taos News is a sister publication of The Santa Fe New Mexican.