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Interstate bridge jumpers concern authorities

By Ed Brock

Augustine Hernandez of Stockbridge knows what should be done with people who cause massive traffic problems by climbing onto bridges over interstates and threatening to jump.

"Throw them in jail," Hernandez said.

But the rash of incidents over the past three months in which five people have threatened to jump from interstate bridges in Atlanta has officials looking for options to prevent, or at least limit, the chances for future occurrences.

The most recent incidents occurred on Tuesday when two men threatened to jump from bridges in separate instances.

Police had to briefly close all lanes of I-20 in DeKalb County around 3 p.m. Tuesday when a man climbed over a safety fence along an overpass. Police managed to grab him before he could jump.

Earlier, the I-85/I-75 Downtown Connector was closed for about 90 minutes after a man climbed onto the edge of a bridge around midnight. Northbound traffic was stopped.

The man, who had put a rope around his neck, was upset over domestic and job issues, police said. He was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital for psychiatric observation.

"You'd be hard pressed to prosecute the guy. He obviously has a mental illness. He had a rope around his neck," Atlanta Police Sgt. Kevin Iosty said.

Clayton County Police Capt. Jeff Turner echoed Iosty's sentiments.

"Our first priority is to get them some medical treatment," Turner said. "Obviously they're bringing attention to themselves to get help."

Turner also said it is standard procedure to stop traffic on the interstate when somebody is threatening to jump off a bridge.

"That's to protect the people in cars going under the bridge," Turner said.

After closing the highway and establishing a perimeter the officers then generally try to talk the person into coming down. Sometimes, when the opportunity arises, they take direct action.

Last Aug. 15 a 26-year-old Atlanta man was seen standing on the edge of the I-675 bridge over Ga. Highway 138 near Stockbridge.

Clayton County Police officer Jason Taylor responded to the incident. After talking to the man and determining that he was suicidal, Taylor distracted him by getting him to look down at a police car blocking traffic below and quickly pushed the man away from the edge.

Police tried the same tactic in one of the recent incidents in Atlanta but were not as successful.

In Cobb County, Gregory Layne Light, 26, of Powder Springs, stood on the edge of a bridge over I-75 for more than two hours at midday May 27. When police tried to grab Light, he struggled with officers before falling about 30 feet, receiving non-life-threatening injuries.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is planning to build more fences on bridges crossing interstates in the metro area in an attempt to directly discourage jumpers. GDOT has four contracts, each including 30 to 40 bridges needing fences, said GDOT spokeswoman Karlene Barron.

Of the roughly 250 bridges over interstates in the metro Atlanta area, half already have fences, Barron said.

"With these contracts they should probably take care of the rest of them," Barron said.

But Barron added that the fences would not be 100 percent effective in stopping the jumpers.

"If people really want to do it, they will," Barron said.

Still, Turner said the fences could help.

"Hopefully if somebody sees somebody climbing a fence and calls the police we can get out there before the person gets to the other side," Turner said.

Barron and other officials have also expressed concern that the media attention given to the incidents may be encouraging "copycat" incidents in which people seeking the publicity imitate the previous incidents.

That's a possibility, said Dunwoody psychologist Dr. Jim Purvis.

"But then again when you stop the interstates for hours at a time it's hard for the media not to cover it," Purvis said.

Every incident must be taken seriously, Purvis said, even though, as in the recent incidents, the potential jumper may have no real intention to jump but is just trying to draw attention to their situation.

"Others might be considered much more serious and someone wanting to end their lives right then and there," Purvis said.

Also, while some potential jumpers may not be ready to actually kill themselves at the time they climb onto the bridge they could eventually escalate to more serious attempts.

For example, a drug addict might make a suicide attempt in order to gain access to an addiction rehabilitation program. If their efforts are unsuccessful, they may actually commit suicide later, Purvis said.

Someone who is serious about suicide usually chooses a very fatal method, such as shooting themselves or jumping from a very high building, Purvis said.

Pamela White of McDonough agreed with Hernandez's assessment that the people who threaten to jump from interstate bridges should be charged with something.

Only one of the people in the five recent incidents, 32-year-old Dorian Heard of Atlanta, who on April 7 threatened to jump from the Downtown Connector overpass because he was upset with his wife, was charged with a crime ? reckless conduct.

"I would say there are some who are serious but a majority are looking for attention," White said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.