The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is barely visible through heavy storm Friday evening (Dec. 31).

Updated Jan. 20 at 5 p.m.

The 2022 New Mexico legislative session is now in full swing, and state legislators are considering dedicating billions of dollars to a slew of costly initiatives, ranging from salary increases for public officials and teachers to big bets on hydrogen production. And yet, so far not a cent has been aimed at implementing safety measures for the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the state’s highest span and one of the most notorious suicide destinations in the United States.

If you’re tired of reading about this in the pages of the Taos News, believe me, our reporters, photographers and editors are tired of it, too. Every time we receive a press release or a phone call about a missing person, or a car found abandoned near the bridge, we fear it’s only a matter of time before we have to report the worst kind of news. But the reason we continue to report these suicides is straightforward: Despite the fact that more than 125 people have died at the Gorge Bridge over the last 25 years, our legislators and state transportation department have done nothing to make the bridge safer, and this is too glaring a government failure for the newspaper to ignore.

When I began working here as a staff reporter in 2015, the issue of suicides at the bridge was one of the first subjects I investigated. Four people jumped to their deaths that year, including a 14-year-old who grew up not far away from the bridge. I remember interviewing the boy’s mother, Heather Lynn Sparrow, who had the courage to talk openly about what had happened. She emphasized the need to raise the bridge’s low railings or install fencing or netting to create enough of a deterrent—enough time—that would-be jumpers might reconsider their decision or a first responder might reach them. A year before that, Curly O’Connor, another county resident, witnessed her son jump from the bridge. O’Connor has long been an advocate for safety measures as well. Right now, public safety officials are investigating a report that another juvenile committed suicide at the bridge last fall, but are still searching for a body. Excluding that pending case, three other people were confirmed to have died at the bridge in 2021.

Over the years, I have done many hours of research on similar bridges in the United States. I have been at the Gorge Bridge when bodies were hauled back to the railing or pulled from the Rio Grande. There are two things I learned: One, bridge suicides impose a broad detrimental psychological impact on an area’s residents, particularly the first responders tasked with handling them, as well as a high financial cost; and two, suicide deterrants—like raised railings, fencing and netting—do work; studies have proven this, such as one published by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in 2017.

Despite being presented with these facts again and again, our legislators have done nothing to address this problem. The New Mexico Department of Transportation has always had an excuse for not taking action, claiming suicide deterrants would cost too much, add too much weight to the bridge or would interfere with the views that visitors go there to enjoy.

We hope our current state representatives—Senator Bobby Gonzales, District 41 House Representative Susan K. Herrera, District 40 Representative Roger Montoya and District 42 House Representative Kristina Ortez—will take swift action where their predecessors have not, and that current NMDOT Cabinet Secretary Michael Sandoval will work alongside them. If they were to do so, they would surely leave behind a legacy worth remembering.

– Editor John Miller

(1) comment

David Hanna

Let's hope someone read this on the House floor in Santa Fe and gets the issue the attention it deserves.

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