HELP IS AVAILABLE: Are you or someone you know in trouble? Or feeling alone? You are not alone. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing or texting 988, or starting an online chat at 988lifeline.org. A call, chat, or text will connect you with a local crisis center through the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline network. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has additional resources at afsp.org/get-help.
Stacey Hamel’s hands trembled the first time she lowered her 16-foot boat into the icy waters of the Connecticut River. The 54-year-old real estate agent was more accustomed to turning knobs to reveal a walk-in closet than cranking a finicky hand winch.
Starting in March 2018, she and her husband would launch their bass boat from the Turners Falls Rod & Gun Club and navigate a mile upriver. The banks climbed higher, creating a valley where spring air mingled with frigid water and produced a blinding fog. Eventually, they’d spot the French King Bridge, rising 143 feet out of the mist.
Hamel’s husband would zigzag the boat downstream while she, positioned near the stern, probed the dark waters with a 12-foot pole. A one-woman depth finder, she wondered how much longer they could go on doing this.
The answer? Nine months.
Every weekend into November, Hamel and her husband returned to plumb the river. The ice melted. The maple- and oak-lined banks turned green — then yellow and orange and red — and then barren again. The Hamels came to know every inch of that section of river, as well as the rusting, steel underbelly of the bridge looming above.
Police officers on patrol nodded and smiled at them, knowing the Hamels had no business out there in that little bass boat. Residents peered out their windows as the couple drifted by. But no one dared to stop them.
How could they?
Somewhere in that river, amid the swirling eddies and jagged rocks, was their 35-year-old son.
In February 2018, Navy officer Bryan Hamel was on leave from his post in Florida, visiting his hometown of Oxford. Late one night, he drove an hour and a half to the French King Bridge, stopped his car midway across its expanse, and leaped over the 3½-foot railing.
A police officer arrived at the bridge moments later. But all he found was an empty Jeep — keys in the ignition, driver door flung open — and two handprints, still stamped in the frost on the railing.
Bryan wasn’t the first to come here to end his life, and he wouldn’t be the last. Over the past 25 years, on average, two to three people a year have jumped to their deaths from the French King Bridge. A precise toll is hard to come by, in part because the swift currents often sweep bodies downstream and into oblivion.
Just over a dozen officers make up the police departments of Erving and Gill, the Massachusetts towns that straddle the river. Since 1998, they’ve been called to the bridge, on average, every 10 days. That’s more often than recycling is collected here.
The same officers respond to call after call. Sometimes they arrive just in time; sometimes not.
For decades, the bridge has cast a grim shadow over Franklin County. Its pall has prompted police officers to resign, resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on searches, and shattered families across New England. Still, no one in the state seemed willing to do the obvious: Raise the railing.
That is, until Stacey Hamel stopped trawling the river and started asking questions: Why was it so easy to jump off the French King Bridge? And then: What could she do to change that?
For years, she waged a campaign to build higher fences on the bridge. She made business cards and launched a Facebook group. She threatened to get everyone she knew to stage a lie-in across its 782-foot span. She wrote letters to the local paper and Governor Charlie Baker. But mostly, she did what few would do.
She talked openly about suicide.
An image of the French King Bridge greets drivers on Route 2A entering Erving, a town of 1,700 people. Its likeness sweeps across a lush valley under a blue sky and calm waters. “WELCOME TO ERVING,” big, bold letters proclaim. “A Great Place To Live.”
The sign calls to mind a cloudless day in September 1932 when some 15,000 people from across the region came to celebrate the opening of the bridge after a year of construction. Airplanes flew overhead. A fleet of canoes and motorboats floated below. Governor Joseph Ely predicted the bridge would become “a mecca for lovers of beauty.”
And that is what it became. A marvel of engineering, the bridge was declared one of the most beautiful in America the year it opened. The New York Times sang its praises and the local Greenfield Recorder dubbed it “a noble monument to man’s skill and ingenuity.” No other bridge in the state offered a sidewalk so high, where pedestrians could marvel at the changing seasons of pastoral New England, all while suspended 143 feet in the air.
But over the decades, the French King Bridge came to emit another kind of siren song. Search Google for “suicide,” “bridge,” and “Massachusetts,” and a series of articles about the bridge will appear, alongside automated questions about its height and the depth of the river below. People have driven hundreds of miles to arrive at the bridge — so much so that locals called it “a loaded gun” left sitting unattended for anyone in crisis to use.
The brake lights tell all. When out-of-towners see someone walking on the bridge, they tend to think little of it and keep cruising toward Boston or Vermont’s Green Mountains. But locals know better. They slow down. They watch in their rearview mirror. They might even dial 911.
Those phone calls — and the sprints to the bridge that followed — took so heavy a toll on Erving police Officer Heath Cummings that he quit a job he otherwise loved. “For 30-plus years, I’ve watched and read — as everyone has in Franklin County and surrounding communities — that the bridge has taken another person,” Cummings once said in a public meeting. “It’s gained a whole different reputation. It’s not known for anything pleasant anymore.”
Many in the area seem to know someone who has gone to the bridge in a cascade of desperation and distress. Some have physically pulled strangers from its edge. Others have heard the scream and the splash. Search boats and dive teams scour the turbulent river for days, but sometimes townspeople will discover the bodies weeks later instead. An Erving man watching his 10-year-old daughter swim on a spring day. Or a fisherman out on the river during the Fourth of July weekend. Sometimes they are never found.
When a military recruiter left her Oxford home in the summer of 2002, Stacey Hamel remembers feeling relief. Finally, her teenage son Bryan would be someone else’s “headache, heartache, and responsibility” for a while.
Then, she went inside her house and cried. She already missed him.
The Navy sent Bryan aboard the USS Monterey to the relative calm of the Persian Gulf while the war raged in Iraq. He’d always had a thing for water, spending hours kayaking the Atlantic and surf casting in the Gulf of Mexico. He covered the entire right side of his torso with a tattoo of an old-school diver — copper helmet and all — clutching a snarling hammerhead shark.
But for all his brio and brawn, Bryan also had a way of listening that could make you feel like the only person in a crowded room. His sloping shoulders and olive eyes would soften and the things people dared not admit to others would spill out to him.
Perhaps that’s what drew him to a job investigating reports of harassment and assault at a military school in Pensacola, Florida. He didn’t talk about the work much, though he’d once let a comment slip to Hamel: “Mom,” he’d said, “people can be so awful to each other.”
Hamel was proud of him and the man he’d become: A public servant and a father, with a young son and a daughter on the way. And she’d told him as much when he came to visit in February 2018. It was during that visit that she woke at 1 a.m. to the ring of her cellphone.
“French King Bridge? I don’t know what that is,” she said to the emergency dispatcher.
But her husband knew the bridge. His travels as a contractor had taken him over its expanse many times for work. He’d marveled at the sprawling view and the rumbling river so far below. Now, at home, his face went pale.
Hamel doesn’t like to dwell on what brought Bryan to the bridge that day. But whatever it was, she knows it was surmountable.
So often, in the wake of a suicide, a type of psychological autopsy occurs, zeroing in on the indecipherable riddle of “why” rather than examining the much more obvious question of “how.” The why is often unknowable. But the how acknowledges an important, often overlooked aspect of suicide: It is preventable.
“The public doesn’t really grasp that you can absolutely prevent suicide,” says Alan Berman, a Johns Hopkins psychologist focused on that topic. “The impulse and the thought of taking one’s life are acute, short-lived, and episodic. If you can take away immediately accessible means of suicide, you can save lives.”
This has been proven true, time and again. In the United Kingdom, suicide declined 30 percent in the 1960s after natural gas replaced coal in stoves, eliminating means of death by carbon monoxide. Sri Lanka once had the highest suicide rate in the world, but then toxic pesticides were banned, and suicides decreased by half. When the Israeli Defense Forces stopped letting soldiers bring their guns home over the weekend, suicides fell 40 percent. After Toronto erected barriers at its most lethal bridge, which had averaged nine suicides a year, there was one death in the decade that followed.
Cathy Barber, a researcher at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, focuses on ways to eliminate a person’s access to highly lethal means of killing themselves. To her, suicide can be likened to an argument in a rocky marriage. Maybe it starts one night with a passing comment, but then snowballs into a shouting match. In the heat of the moment, someone says something really mean that they don’t mean at all. But then there’s time to say sorry, or to seek counseling; to fix things. With suicide by a highly lethal method there is almost never a chance to go back.
The acute period for heightened risk of suicide is often minutes to hours long. In 2001, researchers from the University of Houston studied 153 survivors of nearly lethal suicide attempts. Of that group, only 13 percent reported having contemplated the act for eight hours or longer, while 70 percent thought about it for less than an hour. A quarter of survivors decided to take their lives in less than five minutes.
Research shows that making it more difficult to die by suicide can have a dramatic effect. Removing handguns from homes is one proven tool: Men and women who have them in the home are eight and 35 times more likely, respectively, to die by their own hand. Likewise, there’s no more effective tool at bridges than suicide-prevention fences.
“There’s no guarantee that Bryan wouldn’t have taken his life anyway,” Hamel once wrote in an open letter to public officials, “but I believe in my heart of hearts that if he’d driven that hour and 29 minutes only to find that he couldn’t jump, that there was a layer of protection between him and that dark water, that he would have re-thought his decision and given his life a second chance.”
On the bus ride to the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000, 19-year-old Kevin Hines told himself he wouldn’t jump if just one person asked him what was wrong.
No one did.
And as his hands left the railing, one emotion flooded his mind: regret.
“I instantly wished I hadn’t done it,” Hines told me this January, on the phone from an oceanside town in Costa Rica. He was there — under a blue sky, waves crashing, and birds chirping — because he is one of the very few to survive the fall. “I didn’t want to die. I just wanted help.”
For those willing to talk about suicide, the freckle-faced, utterly genuine Hines is well-known, offering a rare perspective from the other side of the railing. Nearly a quarter-century later, he can still replay the nearly four-second fall before he hit the water at roughly 75 miles per hour. The blunt force trauma shattered three of his vertebrae, requiring weeks of treatment in the hospital followed by grueling physical therapy. He still has a 34-staple scar, a metal plate attached permanently to his spine, and chronic back pain.
Hines travels the world discussing his bipolar disorder — ”brain pain,” as he puts it — and advocating for the building of suicide-prevention barriers on bridges, including at the Golden Gate. The long-running campaign at San Francisco’s most iconic landmark was hamstrung by a heated debate, largely over the aesthetic impact of the barriers. But, in 2018, the construction finally began. Today, the project is nearly complete, some 1,800 deaths later.
The French King Bridge’s mounting death toll — and the state’s slow response in implementing a solution — is laid bare in internal records, police reports, and news accounts I’ve collected over two years. (MassDOT officials did not respond to two interview requests.)
In one e-mail chain from the summer of 2009, obtained through a public records request, an anguished mother wrote a letter to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the agency that formally oversees the bridge. Just days earlier, her 42-year-old daughter had driven to the French King Bridge intending to take her life. The mother called the police and an officer was able to intervene.
The next morning, the mother drove the 30 miles from her home to see the bridge for herself. She was shocked at how low its railing was, especially in comparison to the towering fences along Interstate 91.
“Is this because if a person jumps off the bridge, they won’t hurt anyone except themselves, but if they jump onto [the highway], they might land on someone’s car?” the mother wrote. “Is it that a fence would interfere with the public’s view of the river? I thank God every day that the circumstances were such that I found out her intentions and she was met by the police. Otherwise, I would not be writing this letter so calmly.”
MassDOT officials mulled over her letter for a week, an internal e-mail chain makes clear, conferring with their legal team due to “the sensitive subject matter.” Then they drafted a response: “The minimum standard for rail height is 42 inches above the sidewalk surface. The French King Bridge sidewalk rail meets this criteria (42″ high),” it read. “For bridges carrying a roadway over an interstate highway, protective screen is installed to help minimize the potential occurrences that involve falling objects. Our thoughts are with you and your family during this sensitive time.”
Additional internal e-mails suggest the response was never actually sent to the mother. The sidewalk-side railing remained 42 inches high; across the roadway, it was 38 inches. About a year later, the young woman returned to the bridge and jumped, becoming the second of three deaths in 2010. It took a month to find her body.
Jim Loynd spent 15 years with the Erving Police Department, which meant he was frequently called to the bridge. Kind-eyed and cool-headed, he was the type of cop you wanted in a crisis, with a knack for de-escalating volatile situations.
Maybe it was the years of wisdom gleaned as a civilian. The oldest in his police academy class, at 49, he’d worked as a “lunch lady” at Erving schools and as a baker — he’d made the fire chief’s wedding cake. When he learned the town was short on cops, Loynd stepped up to help.
He met people where they were. This affinity for what he calls “sidewalk psychology” served him well on the bridge. He saved a lot of lives. But as he sees it, he never saved enough.
From 2009 to 2019, his department responded to 315 calls to the bridge, taking 64 people into custody and launching 30 large-scale investigations — efforts that included cadaver dogs, boat patrols, and dive teams. For Loynd, “It was just death by a thousand paper cuts,” he says. “The trauma just accumulating, accumulating, accumulating.”
State officials and others struggled to comprehend the issue. In 2014, e-mails show, a reporter with The Greenfield Recorder called to inquire about the French King Bridge. A public affairs representative seemed surprised by the questions. “[The reporter] quite frankly made it sound like people are jumping off this pretty often,” the representative wrote to a group of state officials. “Do you know if that’s the case?”
Assembling data from the bridge can be difficult. Calls are split between the towns of Gill and Erving, as well as the Massachusetts State Police, fracturing the reporting among three departments. Without a body, a suicide also can’t be confirmed, which is why there were no official suicides in 2018, despite universal agreement that Bryan Hamel jumped that year.
The problem is only complicated by a purposeful lack of media coverage. There is a well-documented, though still debated, phenomenon called copycat suicide, which suggests publicizing a suicide can lead to an increase in suicides overall. “The media needs to understand that MassDOT takes this matter as a very sensitive issue, and does not want to advertise The French King Bridge as an awesome site for suicide,” an official wrote to colleagues in 2018. “Please ask the reporter to handle the story responsibly, and seriously consider the merit in covering this issue.”
I learned of the French King Bridge in December 2019, but hesitated to write anything about it out of fear of exacerbating the problem. Only Hamel’s fight — and eventual success — persuaded me to write this story. Still, I consulted with six suicide experts from across the country. The conversations always came around to one question: How can we fix a problem if we don’t talk about it? The broader discourse about suicide tends to be thwarted by this vexing tension. In the United States, a person dies by suicide every 11 minutes, about as often as a baby is born in Massachusetts. And yet, the topic largely remains undiscussed, relegated to euphemism, hushed tones, and complex semantics.
But when we don’t talk about suicide, we also don’t talk about suicide prevention. At bridges like the French King and Golden Gate, there is a clear, effective solution: Erect barriers. “It absolutely, positively works,” says Paul Muller, president of Bridge Rail, the foundation behind the Golden Gate project. Meanwhile, research shows that attempts from nearby bridges do not increase after barriers go up.
“But how do we advocate for costly, time-consuming, resource-intensive change when nobody knows there’s a problem?” says Sally Spencer-Thomas, an acclaimed clinical psychologist. “It’s the million-dollar question.”
The hourly rate to conduct a rescue operation after a suspected suicide at the French King Bridge is $8,624.93, according to Erving officials. A five-hour investigation would eclipse the annual salary of Jim Loynd. Most operations take one to nine hours.
The small town pleaded for help from the state. MassDOT agreed to put suicide helpline signs on the bridge in 2014. Cameras were considered too, but funding was hard to come by, even for a couple of time-lapse models that would only help confirm suicides had occurred — not give advance warning to stop people before they jumped.
To get the funding, a transit official in 2014 suggested the department present the need for cameras “as a Homeland Security issue [for a] better chance of receiving funds than suicide prevention.” Two years later, a contractor seemed to heed the advice. “I sent this information on to [the Executive Office of Public Safety] who will look for funding,” she wrote. “I had to downplay the suicide prevention and play up the criminal activity in the parking lots to maximize the potential funding opportunities. Now we wait.”
No one apparently questioned why suicide prevention wasn’t a compelling enough priority.
Even with these additions, though, people still came to the bridge. They’d walk right past the suicide helpline signs that read “Desperate?” and straight toward the railing. The time-lapse cameras, installed in 2016, did little except document this grim reality.
By that time, officials were also seriously evaluating higher railings, the exact structures the distraught mother had written to the state highway division about back in 2009. Back then, the mother had called for barriers in the local newspaper and received a wave of criticism from readers. “They said it wasn’t worth the money [and] they didn’t want to lose the view,” the mother later wrote.
At MassDOT, a similar concern over aesthetics dominated early conversations about the barrier design. “An important question is will tourists still be able to take scenic photographs through the modified mesh openings,” one engineer explained in an e-mail. “Since this is a major tourist destination, I feel the selected railing should allow photography.”
During a public comment period, several residents expressed concerns about how the barriers would look on the bridge. “This is a regional landmark, and a destination for tourists,” one Gill resident wrote. “A barrier will impede the beauty of the view from the bridge, which is very dear to me.”
Even when the design had narrowed to four options, the back-and-forth continued for two years, from 2016 to 2018, according to records. Transparent panels would maintain the view and be difficult to climb, but what about the inevitable graffiti? Or if a bird hit the side and died? A net system below the deck could be reversible, but it would mar the view of the bridge from the water. A screen attachment to the existing railing would be cheap but it would, a report said, have the “highest impact on existing bridge aesthetics.”
Finally, they settled on a simple 6-foot extension to the current railing. The line item in a March 2018 internal brief put the cost of construction at $750,000. But the project remained unfunded, with a placeholder date of October 1, 2050.
Then the pandemic hit. Funding became even more scarce and material costs skyrocketed. The project entered bureaucratic purgatory once more.
At bridges, these delays come with steep human costs. Between 2020 and early 2022, records suggest police intercepted at least 13 people at the French King Bridge, and four people died.
Any time the phrase “French King Bridge” is mentioned in the news, Hamel receives an e-mail alert. She’d set it up in the hope that someday someone might spot Bryan’s body, and, finally, they could give him a proper military funeral.
In June 2020, her phone pinged with an alert. A man named Ray Purington, the town administrator in Gill, had published an open letter to The Greenfield Recorder. In it, he demanded that the suicide prevention barriers, still mired in red tape and now estimated to cost $3.9 million, finally be installed.
“I wish I could list the name of each and every person who has died jumping from this bridge,” Purington wrote. “Every name had family members and loved ones, and a life story cut short. Names and stories bring the touching sense of humanity to the bigger issues that we, as public officials, wrestle with every day. I would list those names to reinforce that this letter is about more than steel and concrete, more than dollars and cents. This is life and death.”
Hamel read the letter three times over. For two years, the bridge haunted her and Purington seemed to offer a way to channel her grief into action. “If I could do anything in the whole world, that would be to find him so we could bury him,” she says. “But then you just have to decide: Do I focus on the past or do I focus on the right now? It sucks to admit it, but he’s gone. And the bridge is still there.”
She drove to Gill to meet with Purington, tracing the route that Bryan followed in his final hours. As she returned to meet with town officials — the fire chief, the police chief, members of the Town Council — she realized they’d been calling for barriers for years without success. She became convinced that if the fences had been installed sooner, they would have saved Bryan’s life.
Hamel created a Facebook group to organize letter-writing campaigns and rallies on the bridge. Soon enough, the group swelled to over 400 people. State officials were bombarded with messages from Hamel’s online friends — clients she’d sold homes to, pals from high school sleepaway camp — as well as complete strangers who stumbled upon the cause. She organized an October 2020 demonstration on the bridge, where about 100 attendees clutched hot pink signs to catch the attention of drivers heading to Vermont to see the foliage.
Loynd attended a second demonstration on November 1. He’d first met Hamel during one of those weekends in 2018, when she and her husband pulled up to his cruiser with the bass boat in tow. She doesn’t remember meeting Loynd, or much else from those grief-clouded days. But he still recalls that sorry little boat and the helplessness he felt in the face of their despair.
By that day in November, he and Hamel were close friends, and he drove home buoyed by a sense of hope that maybe, just maybe, all this needless suffering might end. But on duty that afternoon, Loynd was called back to the bridge.
A man stood on the 3-inch ledge outside the railing, three people pleading with him not to jump. When the man turned to face the water, Loynd lunged. He felt his arms slip from the man’s chest to his neck and worried he might be pulled over the railing. Then they landed in a heap on the bridge.
As the man was loaded into an ambulance, the adrenaline drained out of Loynd. His knees began to shake, and he started heaving.
A week later, he received a commendation letter — his third in 15 years of service — for saving the distressed man’s life. Weeks later, Jim Loynd left the force.
“This wasn’t even the worst situation I had out there,” he says. “But it was the tipping point, and I was done.”
Not long after the demonstrations she’d organized on the bridge, Hamel’s phone rang. “Governor Baker’s office asked me to give you a call,” said the voice on the other end. It was the chief of staff for MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack. They talked about the project, and he apologized that the barriers weren’t going to be funded in the next year’s budget. He said he was hopeful for its prospects in 2022.
To anyone else, the conversation could have felt like déjà vu, just another shallow promise amid all the delays. But Hamel took the words as gospel. And then, just in case, she organized even more demonstrations on the bridge and started making her pitch to US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey.
Hamel’s efforts to jump-start the stalled progress were making an impression. “It’s much easier for state public officials to shoot us down and say it’s too much money,” says Erving Fire Chief Phil Wonkka. “But when someone as tireless as Stacey, a Gold Star Mother who has lost a son to the bridge, goes full tilt on it, it is harder for those officials to look her in the eye and say, ‘No, sorry, your son’s life isn’t worth this much money.’”
In her three-year campaign for barriers at the bridge, no other family members of its victims have joined Hamel publicly. She has spoken to them by phone. She’s heard about the Web browser left open with directions to the bridge. And the Uber receipt from Cambridge to its parking lot. But no other grieving relative can bring themselves into the spotlight. She doesn’t blame them.
“My mom used to lower her voice whenever she said the word ‘cancer.’ And today, we live in a society where ‘suicide’ is still only said in a whisper. And when you do bring it up, you always worry you’re saying something wrong,” Hamel says. “It took me a long time to get to a place where I can talk about it.”
The construction cones finally arrived at the French King Bridge on May 20, 2022. By this March, a 9-foot steel fence had been installed on one side, its top edges curving toward the roadway to deter climbing.
During that phase of construction, however, the 38-inch railing on the other side of the bridge was left untouched. At least six apparently suicidal people were intercepted; one person jumped. When work moved to that side, a high construction fence was erected to protect workers from accidentally falling.
There have been no suicides since.
Sometimes a stranger will see Hamel’s license plate identifying her as a Gold Star Mother and they’ll get to talking. Usually, the stranger will thank her son for his service. Then they’ll ask: “How is he doing?” And she’ll respond with a sad laugh: “Well, he’s still dead.” This response tends to disturb people. “So be it,” she says. It’s the truth, and she can’t change that.
But one day soon, she will have entirely changed the reputation of the French King Bridge. She may have already. The people in extraordinary distress have stopped coming, and the completion of the permanent barriers on both sides, study after study shows, will provide the best chance available that they don’t start again.
She hopes that no more mothers will trawl the Connecticut River in a bass boat looking for their son’s body. No more officers will feel sick on the bridge’s edge. That the beauty will displace the terror.
For the first time since 2018, Stacey Hamel will stop driving to the French King Bridge. She’ll unfollow the Facebook page for the little grocery store in Erving with the Friday lunch specials she came to plan her trips around and unsubscribe from the e-mail alerts that have filled her inbox for years. In an odd way, those rituals sustained her.
“But some things need a natural ending,” Hamel says. “And now I can live my own life.”
Hanna Krueger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger.