TAOS, NM (KRQE) – The stunning vistas of the Rio Grande Gorge bridge bring out thousands of visitors every year. The appeal of a view 565 feet above the river is undeniable.
But for Curly O’Connor, that beauty is forever tarnished.
“I do know it is a beautiful place,” O’Connor said. “But now I feel differently about it.”
It all changed April 29. Her 23-year-old son, Cooper, who was recovering from substance abuse issues and was studying to become a drug and alcohol counselor, was in crisis. O’Connor, Cooper’s younger brother, Keaun, and his best friend, Bowdy, tried to help.
They found him near the bridge.
“I drove over and I stopped and I started to talk to him and I’m like, ‘Cooper, I’m here for you,'” O’Connor said. “I was trying to communicate with him and I just couldn’t reach him … It’s just a difficult moment for him.”
“He just started running and I couldn’t catch him.”
Neither could Keaun or Bowdy.
“I was watching and I just saw him grab hold of the railing and just fall over the edge,” O’Connor said. “I just saw this blue wafting shirt and him in his blue jeans.”
“When he went over the edge, it took, you know, 3 or 4 seconds, I don’t know, it could’ve been less, could’ve been more, but I heard the thud of him landing,” O’Connor said. “I hope he was dead before he hit the bottom. That would be my best hope.”
Panicked thoughts raced through her mind. How quickly could help get to him? Did he survive? But there was one that stuck with her.
She thought about the 4-foot-high railing that separated her 6’2″ son from an impulsive, disastrous decision.
“It was just a hurdle for him,” O’Connor said. “Instantly it struck me how easy that was.”
Taos volunteer fire chief Jim Fambro says he’s seen it far too many times in his time with the department. By his estimation, an average of a half dozen people a year jump from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Fambro says every one of them is traumatic for not only the families, but the firefighters who have to recover the bodies.
“Every time you do it, you risk something,” Fambro said. “It’s physically demanding and emotionally demanding. It’s 10 times worse than what you’d think.”
O’Connor and Fambro are now part of an effort to deter as many of those bridge suicides as possible. O’Connor’s newly launched group, the Gorge Bridge Safety Network, is petitioning the New Mexico Department of Transportation to add some sort of safety barrier to the bridge.
“Yes, we’d like to do something to help prevent suicides,” said NMDOT spokesperson Melissa Dosher.
This is not a new issue for NMDOT. In 2009, state Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, sponsored a joint memorial asking the department to study the feasibility of a safety barrier.
That study yielded a number of options.
“A fence, a netting that runs under the bridge, installing suicide hotline phones on the bridge, security guards,” Dosher said. “Nobody can agree to one. They’re researching every one of those and that just takes time.”
Dosher says even five years later, there’s no timeline or set plan in place. One problem is money.
A similar petition for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco recently led to that bridge’s board of directors approving $76 million for a net safety barrier running along the length of the iconic span.
“The cost of the net that we’re looking at, and this is just a ballpark figure would be in the tens of millions of dollars,” Dosher said. “The money is not there right now.”
O’Connor is hoping the state picks up the pace and does something as soon as possible.
“Anything,” O’Connor said. “Anything just to save one person’s life.”
O’Connor’s petition can be found here. Anyone in crisis in New Mexico can call the state hotline at 855-662-747 (NMCRISIS).