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Quechee’s Lack of Suicide Prevention Measures Raises Concerns

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/14/2016 11:53:15 PM
Modified: 7/15/2016 10:07:32 AM

Quechee — The day after police retrieved the body of a woman from Quechee Gorge, people who pushed for suicide prevention measures at the site questioned why the state didn’t take action by a July 1 deadline established by the Legislature.

Hartford police found the car of Holly Blackie, a 51-year-old educator from Randolph, parked near the gorge late Tuesday night, hours after Blackie’s family had requested a welfare check.

Police recovered her body early Wednesday morning, according to Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten.

State Agency of Transportation officials say the timeline established by the Legislature in May did not allow the agency enough time to, in the words of the bill, “complete a project ... to install a structure providing information and resources, signs, or communication devices, or some combination of these, aimed at preventing suicides at the Quechee Gorge Bridge.”

Before this week’s death, the gorge had been the site of eight suicides since 2008.

The law provides a longer timeline for the consideration of other measures, including physical changes to the bridge that lawmakers hope would deter suicides at the site, with a report and recommendations due to the Legislature by next January.

But the law required the short-term measures to be implemented by July 1, “or as soon as practicable thereafter if a longer period is required to obtain necessary permits or satisfy federal requirements.”

“For every new event at the bridge, it brings it back for all of us,” said Regina-Anne Cooper, of Hartland. Cooper pushed for legislative action after her son, Derek Cooper, a 21-year-old Hartland student and volunteer firefighter, jumped from the bridge and died on July 4, 2011.

Cooper said she believes the AOT is acting with good intentions and has made reasonable efforts over the last several weeks, but that it should have taken action long before the legislation was passed.

“I think it’s inexcusable that the state hasn’t done anything thus far over the course of decade after decade of deaths,” she said. “I am going to hold their feet to the fire and make sure that this gets done.”

Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, drafted legislation in January to address the issue, and a version of his proposal was incorporated in Act 158, a larger transportation bill.

He believes the AOT could have moved more quickly.

“I don’t think they see this as among the top priorities of the agency,” he said. “In light of this (most recent death), I will probably get more involved in the agency to see what’s happening.”

Both Cooper and Zagar acknowledged that there is no way to know whether short-term measures such as signs could have prevented Blackie’s death. Signs might provide inspirational messages that would give people contemplating suicide a reason to live, or simply provide information about where to seek help.

Michele Boomhower, the AOT’s director of policy, planning and intermodal development, said she pushed for an Oct. 1 deadline when the bill was first crafted because she didn’t think the July 1 deadline was practical.

She said the agency intends to install “hope holders” — small boxes holding informational pamphlets on posts at the bridge.

“One would hope that perhaps a person who might be contemplating this type of situation would see these and take the effort to review the materials, investigate and perhaps make a different decision or call for help or some other measure,” Boomhower said.

Since the bill passed, transportation agency officials have focused on assembling a group of people to help guide them in choosing what measures might prove most effective in preventing suicide. The committee, which includes representation from Woodstock Union High School, Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, the Vermont Department of Health, local business owners, the town of Hartford, community groups, the Chamber of Commerce, and social service agencies that are knowledgeable about mental health and suicide, didn’t meet to discuss short-term solutions until June 29.

“It took about five weeks or so to do the legwork we needed to do to host this first meeting,” Boomhower said. “We could have just gone out and put up what we thought was the appropriate structure and put in materials that would have seemed appropriate to us, but I think we have found out through the process that we would have gotten it wrong. That’s why I think the deliberate nature has been very important.”

Boomhower said the agency has contracted the consulting firm DuBois and King for $35,000 to conduct a more in-depth review of the issue and gather information for more long-term measures to address the suicides.

The committee is scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. on July 22; Boomhower said those who would like more information about the meeting could contact Jackie Cassino, project manager, at 802-272-2368.

Boomhower said meeting attendees likely would agree on details related to the hope holders, and that they intend to install them by the first week of August.

Cooper said she is advocating for other measures, including a call box, better lighting, signs and a camera surveillance system.

“Those things will take time, but I think they can be done by the end of the year,” she said. “I don’t want any other family to go through this.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

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