ABOVE: A no parking sign hangs above a Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network sign near the end of the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge on Jan. 9, 2019, in Franklin, Tennessee.
By RACHAEL LONG / Photos by Rachael Long
WARNING: This article contains and discusses information about suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
As cold rain briefly subsided and a grey sky loomed overhead, three engineering students stood on a bridge and gazed down at the low guardrails.
The Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge in northern Williamson County has been the location of more than 32 reported suicides. They, along with three other University of Tennessee engineering students, have been tasked with designing some kind of barrier which could be installed as a safety measure on the bridge.
It’s a class assignment for their engineering capstone experience, meant to give some real-world application to the material they have spent four years learning in a classroom.
From the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the students made the more than three-hour drive to take a look at the subject of their assignment. As they towered above the 32-inch guardrails on the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 12, the students felt the gravity of the 155-foot drop to the concrete below. It gave them a real sense of the project they would be working on for the next two semesters.
Exactly one month from today, the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge will celebrate 25 years since its opening on March 22, 1994.
Since then, it has been lauded for its architectural design and beauty. The bridge has won several awards over the years, including the Presidential Award for Design Excellence in 1995 and the Federal Highway Administration’s Excellence in Highway Design Award of Merit in 1996.
According to previous reports by Franklin Home Page, a dedication ceremony was held for the bridge in 1996, and then Vice President Al Gore was the keynote speaker.
To those who don’t know its tragic history, the bridge is another Tennessee landmark to check off a bucket list. It even appears on the Starbucks “You Are Here” coffee mug line.
But for families who have lost loved ones at the bridge, it takes on another, darker face. To them, it represents a place where an alarming number of people — friends, brothers, daughters — have taken their own lives, and where not much has been done to address the death toll.
When the University of Tennessee engineering program was approached by the Natchez Trace Bridge Barrier Coalition to help design barriers for the bridge, Professor Jennifer Retherford said it fit perfectly within her senior design course model.
Undergraduate students in their senior year take the two-semester course as kind of a capstone to their undergraduate experience. The first semester focuses on exploring an engineering problem, while the second semester asks students to propose a design, including calculations and engineering drawings.
The students working on the Natchez Trace Bridge project will look at the existing guardrails to determine if they are, in fact, too low from an engineering standpoint, Retherford said. If not, she continued, they will have to determine if there is something motivating them to go “above and beyond” regulations to solve the problem, which in this case is the high number of suicide deaths on the bridge.
Retherford said the mix of civil engineering and social interest this problem presents is exactly right for the service-learning course she teaches.
While the students will spend two consecutive semesters on “feasible solutions” for the suicide problem at the bridge, Retherford said the students’ designs upon completion are merely suggestions.
“There is a reality that these students are not licensed, so any designs that they present really still live in a conceptual phase,” Retherford said. “They can’t be brought to construction.”
In the less than 12 months the students will work on this project, Retherford said the idea that the students would find a solution to this problem is “really ambitious.”
Instead, what she hopes the class can do is give the coalition ideas to work with to further its efforts in finding a solution.
And though their designs can’t be implemented, Retherford said the students will treat the assignment as a true project.
In early February, the students sat around a large conference room table on the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus with coalition members Trish Merelo and Jennifer Kiely, Retherford and, by phone, members of the National Park Service. The goal of the meeting was to discuss project expectations, ideas and explore what rules and regulations stand in the way of erecting barriers on the bridge.
Because it sits on federal property, the decision of whether changes can come to the bridge will not be made overnight.
Merelo, who lost her 17-year old son on the Natchez Trace Bridge in January 2016. has been spearheading the coalition’s efforts with the University of Tennessee’s engineering program.
Merelo told the students she was propelled into action after speaking with members of local law enforcement who conveyed to her that the number of deaths by suicide was more than she thought. Much more.
“What’s so disturbing, is from 2015 to now … 13 of the total [number of completed suicides] have died there,” Merelo said. “It’s too easy.”
For the purposes of the assignment, the students are treating Merelo as if she were their client. Her perspective represents the social concern and desire to raise the height of the guard rails.
But there is another perspective, and it’s one that Retherford said civil engineers generally understand.
“We’ve got people from the [National] Park who really want this bridge to stay eligible for the historic registry,” Retherford said. “I think, from the engineering perspective … that’s something that we’re often motivated by as well.”
Kiely, who said she has a background in archaeology, knows the importance of historic preservation. But she also knew Merelo’s son. Her kids grew up with him.
To her, to Merelo, and to so many others who have lost loved ones at the bridge, the question is simply this: with so many reported suicides already, when will the cost of preserving the bridge be too high?
Merelo said she wants to see the barriers be eight feet tall.
When one of the University of Tennessee students questioned whether that figure would fall under a range that could be approved, Merelo and Kiely were quick to say in unison and with a laugh, “None of this is in the range to get approved.”
It is clear the coalition knows it’s up against some tough obstacles when it comes to actually getting a barrier approved.
They have the support of Tennessee state Rep. Sam Whitson (R-Franklin), who recently filed a resolution to recognize the suicidal health crisis at the bridge. The resolution, written by the coalition and the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network (TSPN) Executive Director Scott Ridgway was assigned to the Mental Health and Substance Abuse standing committee and placed on its calendar for Feb. 27.
Congressman Mark Green vowed support for the issue at a December town hall meeting, but encouraged the public to contact their federal legislators to get the ball rolling. He also told Merelo that he did not want to make the Natchez Trace Bridge a campaign issue for fear that media coverage could inspire a contagion effect.
Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office responded to requests for information with a message that simply states, “Senator Alexander expresses his condolences to the families impacted by these tragedies, and he has spoken with the Southeast Regional Director for the National Park Service about addressing the issue.”
As the students would come to find out, making a change to federally-owned land is no walk in the park. Any engineering work would require approval from as far up as the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service.
Joining the students’ conversation in Knoxville were Natchez Trace Parkway Superintendent Mary Risser; Chris Smith, cultural resources specialist; Barry Boyd, the Parkway chief of maintenance; and Lisa McInnis, chief of resource management.
National Park Service representatives said the project goes beyond just engineering.
“I think what’s probably gonna be harder than doing just an engineering component, is figuring out how not to damage the integrity of the bridge,” Risser said.
The bridge, which will soon be 25 years old, may become eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
A project like the ones the students propose, Smith said, could affect its eligibility for the Register. As a way to determine the project’s impact on that eligibility, Smith said there are seven guiding principles of a structure’s integrity the students should keep in mind.
Those principles are location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.
A few of those are quite literally set in stone. Smith said the principles that would likely be affected by this project are the design, materials, workmanship and the “feeling of the bridge.”
Smith commented that there are no real parameters for the “feeling,” but it should essentially represent the “feeling of how it would have felt when it was originally constructed.”
When asked who makes the decision on whether those principles had been met, Smith responded that a cultural resources management team for the Park Service would come to a consensus and then make a recommendation to Risser.
From there, Smith said, the proposal would go before the public as well as a state historic preservation officer. If conflict arises at that level, the next step would be a consultation with an advisory council on historic preservation.
“The bottom line is that whatever you guys come up with, you’ll have to be working through us to get to the end result,” Risser said.
Retherford made it clear that the process was simply in its first stage, information sharing.
“We do intend to see how we can comply with park criteria,” Retherford told the National Park Service team. “The goal, like I said, it’s a lofty goal, but [it is] to try and satisfy everyone, at least as a start.”
Merelo says the coalition’s goal, when all is said and done, is the implementation of the barriers.
“Success would be some type of agreeable barrier being approved by the National Park Service and the process of putting it in place begun,” Merelo said. “I know it will take time, I know it could take years … but that’s when we have a party.”
Jay Thota measures the guardrails while Meet Patel and Connor Campbell document the measurement on the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge on Tuesday, Feb. 12.
Bridge safety measures
The height requirements for a pedestrian bridge are different than the requirements for a non-pedestrian bridge. Namely, pedestrian bridges require higher guardrails.
Boyd said the 32-inch guardrails meet the current standard for a highway bridge. But Merelo pointed out that a parking lot sits at one end of the bridge, which is frequently walked and biked across.
“I know it’s not technically a pedestrian bridge, but there’s no signage telling people not to walk on it,” Merelo said. “So why is there no signage saying, ‘Do not walk on the bridge?’”
“Well, I guess we could do that,” one of the Park Service representatives replied.
Retherford jumped in to say that the students could explore whether the intended use of the bridge has changed over time. In other words, if the structure was never intended to be a pedestrian bridge but has unofficially become one because of its attraction to passerby, the students might explore what it would look like to make the rails more equal with pedestrian bridge standards.
The only safety features in place on the bridge today are two small, blue National Suicide Prevention Lifeline signs, one at either end.
Ridgway said TSPN has also explored safety precautions like a security camera connected to 911, and call boxes.
Ridgway — who is also a co-chair for the Natchez Trace Bridge Coalition — said when TSPN first considered these options, back in 2010, technology was a big constraint. Thus, the roadway signs were installed.
Upon seeing them in person, Ridgway said he was less than thrilled.
“When we went out there, I was furious because I thought, ‘Well, why don’t we just see if we can get the smallest sign in the world?’” Ridgway said. “But at the same time, we kinda felt like we needed to be happy with what we got.”
Small though they may be, Ridgway said they worked for a while. After they were installed, Ridgway said the next suicide did not take place until 2013.
But those numbers have since increased in frequency. Ridgway said it has now been just over a year since the emergency call boxes were approved, and they have yet to be installed.
“There’s no amount of money [more important] than someone’s life,” Ridgway said. “We will bend over backwards for natural causes when it comes to death.”
Thanks to the stigma surrounding it, suicide, he said, is different.
“Suicide is very complex, and no one takes their life for one reason,” Ridgway said. “When I talk to these families and am able to hear the pain that they’re going through just because we wanted to keep the beauty of the bridge, it just devastates me, personally.”
Trish Merelo is remarkably joyful.
And it is remarkable because just three years have passed since her teenage son died on the Natchez Trace Bridge. The fight for safety installations on the bridge is the constant drumming of her life these days.
She remembers her son, and his own fight, every day.
“He was the type of son you think about having before you have a son,” Merelo said, smiling at his memory.
She fights tears when she talks about him, as any mother who has lost a child would. But there’s something else, something stronger about Merelo.
She carries with her a notebook full of handwritten information which she has collected on suicide-related trends in young people, on bridges where barriers have been raised, and on the questions whose answers she still seeks. As she flips through the pages looking for an anecdote in the conversation that has become her new normal, Merelo isn’t a mess of tears. She isn’t a mess at all.
Rather than wallow in her pain, Merelo has decided to use it.
In 2018, Merelo and a woman by the name of Sarah Elmer created the Natchez Trace Bridge Barrier Coalition to try to put an end to the suicides at the bridge by encouraging local legislators, the National Park Service and anyone else who will listen to help install some kind of barriers on a bridge with 32-inch guard rails.
Elmer, the coalition’s cofounder, lost both her sister and a friend on the bridge.
The coalition found its footing when Merelo and Elmer attended a September screening of “Suicide: The Ripple Effect,” which told the story of Kevin Hines’ suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge. After the film ended, Hines held a panel discussion and was going to take questions, but ran out of time. Merelo was suddenly compelled by a stranger to ask a question anyway.
“It was one of those magical moments where I stood up and said … Thank you Kevin … but we haven’t talked about our own suicide bridge,” Merelo said.
Before she knew it, people were handing her business cards expressing a desire to get involved.
“That night was pivotal,” Merelo said. “That brought Centerstone to us as a partner and also the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network.”
Since she launched the coalition on Facebook in October 2018, Merelo said it has been a “freight train” of non-stop activity. And although she is a force, there are days when the work weighs heavily upon her.
“I’m three years out, and it still is crushing, at times,” Merelo said of her loss.
If her grief is apparent, it comes and goes quickly. Give her a moment, and she’s laughing again.
“I think that’s just being blessed with a personality that’s kind of buoyant from the outset,” Merelo said. “I think maybe I’m the person for this job because I am that way, and I’m not shy. And I have a big mouth.”
She never thought she’d be an activist, but then again, she never expected her life to take the turns it did. Now, through the coalition, activism is becoming a daily routine.
The moment of crisis
Merelo said in response to the coalition’s social media activism, some have argued that even if barriers are implemented, a suicidal person will simply find another way to kill themselves.
She argues with that logic, saying there is ample proof that if the moment of suicidal crisis is delayed, the person will often not seek out other means.
“The reality is, we don’t know what happens at the moment that someone jumps off the bridge,” Ridgway said. “But we know from people that have survived other bridges … all of them say the same thing. Once their feet left the bridge, they would have given anything to be back on top.”
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, nine out of ten people who attempt suicide will not go on to die by suicide later.
In a study that measured 82 suicide survivors in a psychiatric hospital within three days of the attempt, 48 percent said they attempted suicide within 10 minutes of when the suicidal thoughts first began.
“It’s all about the moment,” Merelo said. “Suicide crises can last hours, they can last days, they can last up to 90 days. But they don’t last forever.”
On this 1,572-foot long bridge that spans Tennessee Highway 96 and sits 15 stories above the pavement below, Merelo knows erecting effective barriers can challenge that moment of crisis, just long enough.
“It is fatal. No one has survived. It is a sure bet. There is no chance for a second thought,” Merelo said. “If we can remove this easy access to lethal means, we buy them time, and we slow the process.”
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