The death of Juan Muñoz is heartbreaking.
A 20-year-old man serving his country in the National Guard disappeared in February, his family in Taos left waiting for news. What had happened to Juan? This week, they received their answer. A body recovered last week from the Rio Grande, about 2½ miles south of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, was identified as Muñoz.
He had left his car near the bridge; it was found there, with his keys, cellphone and wallet inside. And though his body has been found, the family wants answers. They don’t know how Muñoz died or why. They remain furious that, in their view, state police officers have not investigated a second car that was seen near the bridge the night Muñoz disappeared and claim his phone has not been unlocked. They deserve those answers.
The day Muñoz failed to report for duty, he was scheduled for a mental health evaluation. In 2019, Muñoz’s 16-year-old girlfriend was killed in a drunken-driving crash. A month later, a beloved uncle was killed in Taos. Muñoz had contracted COVID-19 in the fall. Grief was all around.
It would be a fitting tribute to Muñoz — however he died — for state bureaucrats to make the bridge safer, whether to prevent accidents or suicides. We have long held there are architectural adjustments that could make it almost impossible to get over the bridge railing so that any would-be jumpers are thwarted. Taos should not be a destination for people who want to die. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The bridge, considered one of the most scenic in the country, has become a place where too many go to end their lives.
According to the state Office of the Medical Investigator, an average of 2.5 people die by suicide after jumping off the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge each year — a number that likely is underestimated.
Some bodies are never found. Many jumpers fail to leave a note, so it is difficult to determine whether a fall was deliberate or accidental. Some 50 people have died this way since regular records started being kept in 1991.
Yet preventing accidents or suicides at the bridge is possible. Other famous suicide bridges, including the Golden Gate in San Francisco, are erecting suicide barriers. More practical at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, perhaps, is erecting higher guardrails. The current rail is only about 4 feet high. That’s not tall enough for a bridge that spans 1,280 feet across and sits some 660 feet above the canyon floor.
A 2017 study found that nets are 77.1 percent effective at reducing suicides, while vertical barriers such as tall bars or chain-link fences stop jumpers 68.7 percent of the time. Research also indicates people who are foiled at a suicide attempt don’t always seek another way out. These prevention methods work.
One mother, Margaret “Curly” O’Connor, lost her 23-year-old son, Cooper Beacom, at the bridge in 2014. Higher railings could have saved Beacom’s life. Her group, the Gorge Bridge Safety Network, continues to work to make the bridge safer — having asked for everything from lowering the speed limit to installing crisis phones to requesting officers or guards there. Someday, the group wants to see more imposing barriers.
A 2019 state Department of Transportation study concluded building a higher rail might be the most effective solution and eliminated the proposal to build a horizontal net. It’s clear the groundwork has been laid. All that’s lacking is a sense of urgency, something Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham knows how to create. Without it, more people will die.
The bridge is a spectacular expression of human ingenuity. It is a draw for tourists and moviemakers because of its visual impact. Yet it has become a place of sadness. Addressing that problem, more than beauty or historic significance, is what matters.