Temporary Fence to Be Installed at Quechee Gorge

  • Vermont Agency of Transportation officials are planning to install a temporary 9-foot-high chain-link-type fence at the Quechee Gorge Bridge, with holes cut in the fence similar to the bridge above to provide a view of the gorge. The fence is due to be installed by the end of the summer. (Courtesy Vermont Agency of Transportation) courtesy Vermont Agency of Transportation

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/18/2018 1:23:48 PM
Modified: 7/18/2018 11:48:32 PM

Quechee — A temporary fence will be installed on both sides of the Quechee Gorge Bridge by the end of the summer as part of a series of measures to prevent suicides.

The barrier state officials have in mind is a 9-foot-high, chain-link-style fence that would be curved at the top to deter people from climbing over it, said Kristin Higgins, structures program manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. To provide a view of the gorge below, small holes would be cut in the fence.

“We are taking this very seriously,” Higgins said in an interview on Wednesday.

Just Wednesday morning, firefighters retrieved the body of a 27-year-old Massachusetts man from the gorge, the fourth death there since January, Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten said. The man’s cause of death has not been determined, but is not considered suspicious.

The temporary fence and subsequent measures stem from legislation passed in 2016 requiring officials to implement suicide-prevention measures and improve pedestrian and first responder safety in response to a number of suicides and other incidents.

Federal, state and town officials continue to work on a long-term plan to make the site safer, and they hope to have a permanent fix by means of a barrier wall or a net below the bridge by 2022, Higgins said.

Exactly what work will be done at gorge, one of the state’s major natural attractions, is the subject of ongoing public hearings.

The bridge itself also needs extensive renovation, so the permanent fix is being worked into the bridge repair schedule.

Higgins said she had hoped the state would install the temporary fence before the summer tourist season, but there were a series of delays, including the need for public hearings, permitting and obtaining federal funding for the project, which has been secured. The temporary fence, which likely will be dark green or black, is estimated to cost $175,000, she said.

The design of the fence will be the subject of a meeting of state and local officials next Tuesday at Hartford Town Hall. The public is invited to attend and comment.

At a meeting in June, officials said erecting the fence will take between two and three weeks, according to the minutes.

The decision in January to install a temporary fence came after the first of four suicides this year, Higgins said. The need for the fence was then heightened by deaths at the gorge in February, May and now July.

The fact that a temporary measure to help prevent suicides at the gorge is close at hand was applauded by Hartland resident Regina-Anne Cooper, whose son, Derek, died by suicide at the gorge in July 2011 at age 21.

The gorge has been the site of 14 suicides between 2007 and July 2018, according to Kasten, the police chief.

“Any type of barrier is long overdue,” said Cooper, who has been an advocate for taking preventative measures and pushed for legislative action following her son’s death. “If there was one, my son would be alive. I cannot believe that this hasn’t been dealt with decades before.”

The solution to the problem must address a variety of needs, she said, including safety for people in crisis as well as for first responders, who perform risky, costly and emotionally draining retrievals.

Derek, his identical twin and Cooper’s husband all have been firefighters in the Upper Valley.

“I know what the first responders have to go through every time there is a death or an attempt,” Cooper said. “It is so painful to constantly relive this every time there is an event. Enough is enough.”

Throughout her advocacy, Cooper has kept the needs of local business owners in mind. Some business owners around the gorge have expressed concerns about whether a fence or barrier wall would make the site less attractive to visitors, and Cooper agreed that an “ugly” barrier would be undesirable, she said.

In January 2017, state workers installed two kiosks with a call button that rings a 24/7 counseling service offered by Lebanon-based Headrest and also installed signs that read “YOU MATTER” with a crisis number to call.

Kasten, the chief, encouraged anyone in crisis to reach out for help.

“Nobody needs to feel the need to do this,” he said.

Next Tuesday’s meeting will start at 7 p.m.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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