PHOTO: The Natchez Trace Bridge viewed from Highway 96. / Photo by Brooke Wanser
WARNING: This story contains information about suicide. If you or a loved one is thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) at 1-800-273-8255. The NSPL provides 24-hour, free support to those in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources for you or loved ones.
BY ALEXANDER WILLIS
The Natchez Trace Bridge, which sits approximately eight miles northwest of downtown Franklin, is world-renowned for its architectural design and beauty — however, the bridge is also more infamously known as ‘suicide bridge’ among Williamson County residents, due to the high rate of suicide attempts over the years.
Following years of calls from activists and community members for action, Natchez Trace Superintendent Mary Risser, as well as Rep. Mark Green have confirmed that the first steps to implement barriers along the 1,572 foot bridge are now underway, with $1.2 million being secured for the preliminary phase of its design from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA).
“The Federal Highway Administration and the [National] Parks Service identified $1.2 million, and this is to do all of the preliminary work — it doesn’t include construction,” Risser said. “It has to do with developing statements of work so that we can go out to potential contractors — who would develop concept plans — and then narrow it down to the top three alternatives, and then do a lot of engineering. We have to make sure that whatever alternative would be selected, that the bridge has the capacity to hold everything up.”
Green was also able to verify that funding had indeed been secured for the first phase of the project, which ultimately aims to see barriers replace the existing railing, which stands only 32 inches tall.
“Task one is to look at the conceptual alternatives for safety; how do we basically make it safe,” Green said. “They’ve got to look at structural issues with the bridge and whatever they connect to them… there’s feasibility studies on all of that [too], so they’ll get recommendations on how to fix it, and then [on how] to make sure that it structurally works with the bridge, so there’s some engineering work that has to go on.”
Since its opening in 1994, 32 people have died by suicide on the bridge, with at least five of those occurring in 2017 alone. The issue became of such grave concern to the community at large that a coalition was formed to see barriers constructed on the bridge, aptly named the ‘Natchez Trace Bridge Barrier Coalition.’
The coalition’s two founders, Trish Merelo and Sarah Elmer, have both been personally affected by the tragedy of suicide relating to the bridge.
Merelo’s 17 year-old son, John Miller, then a senior at Brentwood High School, tragically died by suicide at Natchez Trace Bridge in January of 2016. In July of 2015, Elmer’s 25 year-old sister, Danielle Elmer, also died by suicide at the bridge.
While the funding being secured for the preliminary phase of construction is certainly progress, Superintendent Risser said that construction may not begin for some time.
“So right now, we’re in the middle of all the fun bureaucratic things that we have to do,” Risser said. “Hopefully by the end of this period, we would have 30 percent [of] construction drawings ready to go, and construction is not expected to start until sometime in 2023. So it’s still going to be a long process that we have to go through.”
Risser said that this first step of progress had been the culmination of years worth of effort, which eventually saw the National Park Service present their findings to the Tennessee Congressional Delegation in Nashville on March 1 of this year. Congressman Green had also been a strong advocate for the implementation of barriers for months, discussing the issue with Merelo in late 2018.
“The Parks Service has been working on this project since 2015,” Risser said. “We’ve been working with the FHA since 2015, and have done lots of research on a lot of different things all over the country, all over the world.”
The 10th leading cause of death in the United States, suicide takes roughly 129 lives every day. With the national suicide rate sitting at 14 per 100,000 people, Tennessee’s rate of 16.87 per 100,000 makes it among the top states in terms of suicide rates, with the latest findings showing 1,163 Tennesseans lost to suicide in 2017 — the highest number on record since recording began in 1981.
After years of activism from Tennesseans at large, which even included a team of engineering students from UT Knoxville drawing conceptual designs for solutions, the first step to preventing further suicides at Natchez Trace Bridge has finally begun.