Fatal Bridges

October 1, 2008

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in March 2000, Hamed Nastoh finished a five-page note and laid it on his desk beside his homework, using his teddy bear as a paperweight. A slender, neatly dressed boy, Hamed was a straight-A student (the day before, he’d got 100 percent in English) who liked horror flicks, reading, and dance music. In the note, he wrote that he could no longer endure the bullying and taunts from his Grade 9 classmates at Enver Creek Secondary, who called him big-nose, four-eyes, geek, fag. Even his friends laughed at him, he said. “I hate myself for doing this to you,” he wrote to his parents. “I really, really hate myself, but there is no other way out.”

The Nastohs lived on 143rd Street in Surrey, about 10 kilometres from the Pattullo Bridge, which spans the Fraser River and links Surrey and New Westminster. Around 5 o’clock, Hamed’s mother, father, and younger brother, David, left to spend the evening with a neighbour. Hamed and his older brother, Abby, were home for the night.

At about 6 o’clock, Abby got in the shower. Hamed put on his new Tommy Hilfiger jacket, slipped out, and made his way, perhaps by bus, to the Pattullo. Rain had started to fall and the breeze was brisk, gusting to 22 kilometres per hour as he walked out along the bridge’s only sidewalk. Saturday-night traffic rushed by on his right; on his left, the SkyTrain lit the horizon, carrying teenagers to Metrotown or on into Vancouver. Directly below Hamed, 48 metres (or roughly 16 storeys) down, the churning waters of the Fraser sent two-metre-high standing waves against the bridge’s concrete abutments. The railing that stood between him and the frigid, fast-moving water was four feet high; it would have reached his chest.

Soon after Abby got out of the shower, he realized Hamed was gone. He called his parents, and their father, Karim, hurried home to investigate. On finding the note, he phoned the RCMP. Hamed had given no hint about how he planned to kill himself, and the RCMP focused their search on the area immediately around the Nastohs’ home.

In the early-morning hours of March 12, Hamed’s mother got the call she was dreading. Hamed’s body had been found washed up on the south shore of the Fraser, just downstream from the Pattullo. He was wearing his blue Nike backpack, which he’d filled with rocks—he was a good swimmer, and the rocks were grim insurance. As it turned out, they were unnecessary: according to the coroner’s report, Hamed Nastoh died from blunt force trauma after hitting the water at roughly 110 kilometres per hour. The only visible mark on his 14-year-old body was a small scratch on his nose. A week before his death, Hamed had attended a suicide awareness talk at Enver Creek, given by a mother who had lost her son. In his note, Hamed wrote that he’d given his parents a “hint” when he mentioned that the speaker had said that suicidal people give hints.

“Do you think him telling me that they give hints was a hint?” asks Nasima Nastoh, piloting her black BMW down King George Highway toward a little Afghan bakery. “He said [in his note] ‘I’m crying inside.’ I didn’t know that he was. But I put on a happy face, too, even when I’m not happy.”

Nasima is 45 years old. Her children have grown up: Abby is 24 and David is 18. Hamed would be 23, but he’ll remain 14 forever; his framed Grade 9 photo is wrapped in a yellow towel on the back seat. “I worry for my other sons,” Nasima says. “I look normal, but I’m not normal—the anxiety, the guilt. Other teenagers have graduated, but not my son. Why? The why destroys you.”

After fleeing Afghanistan in 1984 during the Soviet-Afghan war, the Nastohs became an immigrant success story. “We went through the mountains, in the dark, leaving everything behind us to have a better life in Vancouver,” says Nasima, who grew up in a westernized family in Kabul. She was 20 years old and two months pregnant with Abby when she got to Canada. “We were so happy here.”

Hamed came along 14 months after Abby. “When I gave birth to Hamed, he was so beautiful. I looked into his big brown eyes and said, ‘How lucky I am: two sons, in a country that’s free of war and violence.’ ”

Soon after his birth, Nasima got a job at Immigration Canada and put her psychology degree to work, counselling refugees and immigrants. Karim, a professor of history and geography in Kabul, worked as a labourer for years before the Nastohs saved enough to buy a house in Abbotsford. In 1990 they remortgaged the house and bought a convenience store on Granville Street. Nasima continued her social work, and by the mid 1990s Karim had built a good business importing Persian carpets. They moved to the desirable neighbourhood of Brookside, in Surrey.

“Life was good,” Nasima recalls. “We went on vacations and had many good times. Hamed and I were so alike. He was a gentle, good-hearted person, always smiling. We did so much together: movies, trips to the library, a Spice Girls concert. We were so close.”

We pull in to an industrial park, but the bakery is closed. “Oh, they have such nice vegetarian dishes,” she says. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where to go now.”

Experts say that 80 percent of those who die by suicide are clinically depressed and exhibit warning signs: low self-esteem, aggression, lethargy, addiction, recklessness, even inappropriate elation. Hamed never mentioned being bullied at school. He didn’t fight with his brothers. He ate well, and he always wanted to go to class.

But there may have been signs after all. Soon after Hamed’s death, another boy came to visit Nasima, saying he too had been targeted by bullies. “This boy said to me, ‘I’m not sleeping; I’m thinking, processing all these problems at school.’ ” The boy went straight home after school every day and climbed into bed until dinnertime. “That’s exactly what Hamed did,” Nasima recalls. “That boy saw Hamed in his coffin and he saw himself. It saved the boy’s life.”

It’s something she has heard many times since she started sharing her story: that by bringing the topic out of the darkness, we can save lives. When I tell Nasima about plans to install call boxes on the Lions Gate Bridge—a visible, public acknowledgment of bridge suicides—that are meant to slow people down just long enough for suicidal thoughts to subside, she responds: “It’s not enough. Maybe only a barrier could have stopped Hamed.”

Construction of suicide barriers on bridges is exactly what Kevin Hines advocates. Six months after Hamed died in the Fraser River, Hines jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, which connects San Francisco to Marin County, into the waters of San Francisco Bay and became, at 19, one of only 26 known survivors of the 67-metre fall from North America’s most powerful bridge-suicide magnet. “As soon as I stepped off that ledge, I regretted it,” says the now-married, 26-year-old Hines, who works full-time as a suicide-prevention advocate and lives near Golden Gate Park. Hines was badly injured and calls his survival miraculous. Once his shattered vertebrae mended, he began his campaign for safety rails on the Golden Gate, a campaign he says he will devote the rest of his life to, hoping to prevent more “senseless” deaths. “In those terrifying milliseconds of free-falling,” he recalls, “I just wanted to live.”

Do barriers actually work? A long-term study conducted by Richard Seiden, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, tracked 515 people who’d been talked down from the Golden Gate. The study found that 26 years later, 94 percent of the 515 either were still alive or had died of natural causes. The study underscored the impulsivity of bridge jumpers and confirmed the efficacy of barriers as a means of prevention. When the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C., was retrofitted in 1986 to make jumping nearly impossible, another bridge a block away showed no increase in jumpers. In Toronto, in 2003, after much heated debate at city council, barriers were constructed on the Bloor Street viaduct, an alluring and easy bridge from which to jump, and there hasn’t been a suicide from it since. Extensive research has shown that restricting access to a single means of suicide—including bridges—reduces the overall death-by-suicide rate.In the Vancouver area, our many bridges keep crisis workers busy. “We get bridge calls too often, at least once a month,” says Sergeant Ivan Chu of the New Westminster Police Department, who spent 12 years as a crisis negotiator and, unlike many law-enforcement officials, is willing to speak openly about the issue. “More than 90 percent of the time, we can talk people down.” In two recent incidents—one on the Alex Fraser Bridge, the other on the Port Mann—a driver slammed on his brakes, bolted from his car, and jumped. But these were not typical incidents; most would-be jumpers hesitate, says Chu, sometimes for hours, and the police can deploy one of their five negotiators and their boat.

Unfortunately, as often as not, the boat is used for recovering bodies. “From that height,” says Chu, “it’s like hitting cement.” Most jumpers die from force of impact, though some die soon afterward from internal bleeding or drowning. “It’s a gruesome way to go.” Chu recalls an incident, 10 or so years ago, when a 30-something man climbed to the top of the arch on the Pattullo, drunk and gripping a bottle. “I talked to him for hours. You form a bond. Usually it’s a guy whose life has recently turned sour.” Chu finally persuaded the man to come down. He started to descend—“then he slipped and fell. It was horrifying. I don’t know if his body was ever recovered.”

"Please, please go to schools and talk to kids,” Hamed wrote in his note. He wanted the world to know that “ bullying and teasing has big consequences.” Soon after his death, honouring his request, Nasima opened her
door to the media and to mourning students. She formed Hamed Nastoh’s Anti-Bullying Coalition. Like most suicide experts, she believes that the benefits of frank discussion far outweigh the likelihood of copycats.

Still, going public was a brave thing to do. The current attitude toward suicide—and toward bridge jumpers in particular—is not unlike our view of incest decades ago, or of sexual abuse by priests more recently: the less said, the better. The Vancouver Police Department has a blanket policy of not discussing suicide, and the West Vancouver Police Department refused to make public a recent 51-page report on the subject. This attitude is pervasive. An Aquabus driver approaching Granville Island one morning not long ago, asked if he’d ever come across a body in False Creek, replied, “Yeah, twice, first thing in the morning, under the Granville Bridge.” Asked for details, he replied, “We’re really not supposed to talk about it.”

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention has guidelines on its Web site. Newspapers, says the association, should not print suicide stories on the front page. They should not publish details of method, or photographs of the deceased. Fear of copycats prevents reporters from humanizing suicide, yet there’s no reliable evidence that open discussion encourages copycats. Many studies have found that the media have zero effect on suicide rates. It’s especially hard to make the case for discussion, and for barriers on bridges, in the face of an uninformed, apathetic public.

In Nasima’s case, there were cultural issues as well. “Sometimes,” she says, checking out the chain restaurants along King George Highway, “people judge, especially from the Afghan community.” She was accused of not buying Hamed enough clothes, of not giving him enough money. By going on a short holiday in Italy last year with her mother, people said, she was asking to lose another son to suicide. “Just recently, we went to a wedding. I was wearing clothes like this,” she says of her black-and-white sleeveless dress, with a demure lace-collared blouse beneath. “I never once wore the veil growing up. But I received this email: ‘God took your son to punish you for wearing these kind of clothes.’ ”

This July, under the deep-blue skies and the afternoon heat of Canada Day, an elderly woman stood under the deck of the Ironworkers Memorial bridge, poised to become one of the dozen or more people who leap from Metro Vancouver bridges each year. The Ironworkers Memorial in 2008, like the Pattullo in 2000, had no suicide barrier—just an easily surmounted railing.

Bridge jumps are unlike other suicide attempts because they’re often impulsive. Fatal jumps tend to follow closely on the heels of a job loss, a breakup, or the death of a loved one—lives turned sour, as Sergeant Chu put it. Most would-be jumpers can be talked out of choosing death, so negotiators knew that if they could communicate effectively with the elderly woman, they might well prevent her from jumping. Unfortunately, this meant shutting down the bridge—and thus a section of the Trans-Canada Highway packed with holidaygoers. At such times, drivers are generally unsympathetic, even outraged. Inconvenienced by a would-be jumper, motorists often swear, or heckle, or shout “Jump!” British Columbia’s minister of transportation, Kevin Falcon, happened to be among the thousands stuck in traffic for more than six hours that day. Authorities finally did talk the woman down—an achievement made possible only by the closing of the bridge, and the consequent lack of traffic noise—but Falcon railed against the decision to shut the Second Narrows crossing. In television and print interviews, he demanded alternatives to full-on closures. He also dismissed the idea of suicide-prevention barriers. While “we need to be sensitive to people in distress,” he said, “we also need to think about the ramifications of paralyzing the system and jeopardizing the lives of others.” As for barriers, he said, “the budgetary cost isn’t even an issue, but they’re considered a visual eyesore.” Besides, he added, “suicidal people tend to be ingenious about their methods.”

Ian Ross, director of the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of British Columbia, often comes up against this argument. He views it as misinformed. “Barriers are the most effective method for preventing bridge suicides,” he says. “Bridges are all too easy to access, and we haven’t made nearly enough effort in this area.” In the last decade, some bridges, including the Pattullo, have been rigged with rollers to make climbing above the car decks more difficult. There are plans to install call boxes on the Lions Gate Bridge linked to 911 and crisis lines. But, Ross says, “the topic of bridge suicides is swept under the carpet. There’s a big stigma around it, and we need to bring it out of the shadows.” The Canada Day incident sums up the way most people view suicide. Few know anything about the distraught woman; everyone remembers the six-hour traffic jams.

Sergeant Chu’s sympathies lie with the would-be jumper, not with inconvenienced motorists. “Society is less compassionate than ever,” he says. “Everyone’s always in a rush.” Chu, like Nasima Nastoh, believes barriers are the only solution. “If we could take that option out of the picture, we should.” Dan McKenna of the Surrey RCMP, a negotiator for 25 of his 31 years of service, agrees. “Kevin Falcon’s comments are insult-ing and just plain wrong,” he says. “Our job is to hold out a hand. Most jumpers choose to take it.”

For lunch, Nasima and I settle on White Spot. “The heartache is always there,” she says, once we’re seated. “My son is gone. I miss him every day, day in and day out. At the beginning—it’s crazy—I’d go to his room every morning and night, saying, ‘Good morning,’ ‘Good night.’ I was always saving three pieces of pizza for him, setting the table for him.”

For three-and-a-half years after his death, she left his room untouched, his dirty clothes preserved in a plastic bag because she didn’t want the smell of him vanishing. When the family moved to Maple Ridge, they finally dismantled his room. More recently, they’ve moved back to Surrey, and Nasima has started a career as a realtor.

Hamed’s death, eight years after the fact, continues to haunt the family. Karim remains “quite depressed,” she says. Abby flatly refuses to talk about his late brother. Nasima and her younger son went to counselling together, and David still visits Hamed’s grave frequently. “David and I spend a lot of time talking, crying, writing to Hamed to express our feelings,” says Nasima. “We travel to spread the word of bullying awareness together.”

I tell Nasima about Kevin Hines’s extraordinary tale of survival: the passing woman who happened to have a friend in the Coast Guard, and called him; the sea lion that Hines says helped keep him afloat; the rescue that came, amazingly, within 15 minutes. “My son was a good swimmer.” She shrugs. “He put rocks in his backpack to make sure he’d drown.”

It torments her that she doesn’t know exactly what happened, and that Hamed might have been saved in the hour before his death. She says the coroner’s office told her 30 calls were placed to 911 between 7 and 8 p.m. on March 11, concerning a boy with a backpack on the Pattullo Bridge. (The Coroner’s Service won’t confirm or deny that a staffer told her about 911 calls.) Was there confusion over which city’s emergency services should respond? Both the Surrey RCMP and the New Westminster Police Department say there is no such thing as a jurisdictional line during bridge-jumping incidents. “We roll vehicles immediately,” says Roger Morrow, a spokesman for the Surrey RCMP. “If that really happened, it’s unfortunate and really sad.”

After lunch, Nasima drops me off at King George Station, among mothers kissing their kids goodbye. I suggest that her efforts to raise awareness are finally bearing fruit: the new Golden Ears Bridge linking Langley and Maple Ridge will sport suicide-prevention fencing, and the Pattullo is slated for demolition—ideally, its replacement will also have built-in safeguards. Nasima smiles, though not with her eyes, and bids me farewell.

Heading downtown on the SkyTrain, which is full of teenagers chatting and texting, I study the Pattullo Bridge, as if answers might be found there. But all I see is a boy lugging a backpack. And all I hear above the screech of the wheels is the Nastohs’ parrot, which for months after Hamed’s death imitated Nasima, filling the devastated home with his squawks: “Where is Hamed? Why did this happen? Why?”

 

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