Six years ago, Anne (Missy) Read, a recent graduate of George Washington University, stood and smoked cigarettes for an hour on the Calvert Street bridge on a warm November morning before jumping to her death 125 feet below in Rock Creek Park.
Now, her parents, former undersecretary of state Benjamin H. Read and his wife Anne, have almost single-handedly persuaded the D.C. government to erect iron picket fences along the Calvert Street and Connecticut Avenue bridges over Rock Creek Park in an effort to end their long history as suicide sites.
In all, 33 people have jumped to their deaths from the bridges in just the last 7 1/2 years, including four in the first 5 1/2 months of this year.
"The extraordinary history of suicides from these bridges makes installation of a fence imperative," John E. Touchstone, D.C. director of public works, declared recently.
He ordered the fence construction over the vocal objections of some community and business leaders who have claimed the gray fences will be unsightly and only serve to force people to commit suicide elsewhere or by some other means.
Of the four persons who jumped to their deaths this year, three did so from the Calvert Street bridge, officially known as the Duke Ellington Bridge. Last year, all five victims plunged from Calvert; there were no suicides at the bridges in 1983, but three persons jumped from the Connecticut Avenue span -- officially, the William Howard Taft Bridge -- in 1982 and one jumped from the Calvert bridge.
Of the 33 bridge suicide cases since 1978, 15 of those who died were white men, 13 were white women, three were black men and two were black women. Although city statistics are not complete, the victims' ages varied widely, with most in their 20s and 30s. In contrast, Metro said 12 persons have committed suicide by jumping in front of subway trains during the system's nine years of operation.
Read, 59, said he and family members were shocked by his 24-year-old daughter's suicide, but that "with perfect rear vision, there'd been some trouble," including the ending of a romance. Read has channeled the grief and torment he felt initially into a crusade to have the fences erected.
Tara Hamilton, a city public works spokeswoman, said that Read brought the danger and history of the bridges to the attention of D.C. officials.
"We were just as ignorant as the public of the extraordinary number of suicides on both bridges," she said. "It's an opportunity to bring about a benefit even if it only stops one. We think it will be well worth the effort."
Read, undersecretary of State during the Carter administration and the State Department's executive secretary from 1963 to 1969, said that whether his daughter "would have done it elsewhere, I have no way of knowing. You want to try to help anyone you can.
"Delay will cost lives," said Read, a tall, genial man. "It's already cost four this year. No one can say for sure that people won't do it elsewhere, but statistics seem to show they won't."
Read called bridge-jumping the "one form of suicide that requires no preparation -- no rope, no gun, no pills. Young people particularly seem prone to bridge-jumping because they often haven't had the life experience to know that there is a tomorrow.
"People in this depressed state want to escape the mental torment but don't think in terms of death being forever," he said.
Richard H. Seiden, director of research programs at the Berkeley, Calif., Suicide Prevention and Crisis Intervention Center, studied the lives of 515 people who were stopped between 1937 and 1971 from jumping off San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, America's foremost suicide landmark with about 800 deaths.
Seiden found that of the 515 would-be jumpers he studied, only 35 later went on to commit suicide, most of them within six months of their Golden Gate attempt and only two or three off the bridge.
"Two myths were effectively refuted," he said. "One is that people will do it another way and the other is that people are suicidal all their lives. Time does heal some wounds. People do go on with their lives.
"There is justification for intervention or prevention," Seiden said.
Alan H. Berman, a Washington psychologist who is former president of the American Association of Suicidology, said in a letter to Touchstone: "Individuals intent on self-destruction tend to choose the most available and accessible method. Furthermore, a primary tenet of suicide prevention is that of making either less accessible or less lethal the available method of self-destruction.
"Suicidal individuals are suicidal, in part, because they lack the ability to think flexibly and to generate alternatives when thwarted," he said.
Such psychological theories seem to have meant little, however, to some residents and business leaders in the area who use the bridges daily or can see them from their work places.
City Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who lives nearby, said, "If we think we're going to stop suicides by putting up a couple of fences on bridges, that's ridiculous. People who are intent on committing suicide are going to find a way."
Officials of both the Shoreham and Sheraton Washington hotels, parts of which tower over the bridges, voiced initial opposition on aesthetic grounds. But the Shoreham's managing director, Paul J. Sacco, now says he is not opposed to the planned fences. "If you can save a life, it's worth it," he said. Sheraton Washington officials said they are reevaluating their opposition.
Two Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in the communities next to the bridges, 1-C and 3-C, have joined the opposition, as has the 18th and Columbia Road Business Association.
John Orcino, president of the business association and owner of the Avignone Freres catering service, said that if would-be suicides are thwarted in ending their lives on the bridges, "they'll jump in front of a car. If they really want to do it, they're going to do it.
"It would ruin the looks of the bridges," he said. "Why don't they put a fence around Little Falls in the Potomac River where all those people are drowning? Fix the potholes on the bridges and put a fence around the river where no one wants to die."
Hamilton said that the $150,000 Calvert Street bridge fence will be built within the next month. The 3-foot 10-inch fence will be erected on top of the existing waist-high railing to make a 7-foot 7-inch barrier, Hamilton said.
She said fence construction work will be started on the Connecticut Avenue bridge next summer.
The two bridges are designated local historic landmarks, but both the federal Commission of Fine Arts, Washington's guardian of architectural aesthetics, and local historic preservation officials have approved the fence design