Viveca Stackig is convinced that her 25-year-old brother was not ready to die when he jumped off the Duke Ellington Bridge over Rock Creek Park in 1975.
The 135-foot-high bridge with its three-foot-eight-inch stone safety barrier lured her mentally ill brother to his premature death as he passed over it on a cold January day, she said.
"The bridge provides a romantic and negative invitation for the slightly confused or depressed person to choose a permanent end to what might have been a temporary problem," Stackig said yesterday. "I don't think that he would have found another means."
Since January 1986, an eight-foot-high antisuicide fence has been a feature of the bridge, an addition that has angered some area residents, who say that the Calvert Street NW span has become an eyesore for the approximately 2,000 pedestrians and 20,000 motorists who cross it each day.
The argument between the city's Department of Public Works, which built the fence, and the neighborhood activists who want it taken down has ended up on the desk of Diana Herndon, a mediator appointed by Mayor Marion Barry to hear both sides. In March, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the city must review the process by which it allowed the fence to be built because it did not provide for sufficient citizen comment.
Herndon, in the first of two days of hearings held yesterday at the Department of Housing and Community Development on North Capitol Street NE, must decide whether the fence will remain.
"The barriers are ineffectual," said Larry Karr of the Kalorama Citizens Association. "They don't stop people from committing suicide." The bridge, with its tall, curved fence, Karr said, is ugly enough to make normally happy people depressed.
Karr was joined in his opposition to the antisuicide fence by D.C. Council members Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) and Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3). In the months since the fence was erected, Kane said, bridge-jumping suicides have increased citywide as the number of people leaping from the Calvert Street span has dropped.
"The barrier is not stopping suicides, only transferring most of them," said Nathanson. "Despite the Ellington barrier, two people have still found it possible to jump off of that bridge."
Kane agreed, saying that the city should find ways to beef up its suicide prevention program through the use of hot lines and mental health counseling, not fences. Only two of 111 suicides reported in the District last year occurred at the Ellington bridge, and only 13 suicides in the city could be attributed to bridge-jumping, Kane said, citing police statistics.
"It is clear that the views from the Duke Ellington Bridge are an important aspect of the historic character of the bridge and that the suicide barriers severely diminish those views," said Kane.
Government officials offered statistics that showed that in the time since the fences have been up, there has been only one suicide at the bridge, compared with nine deaths in the preceding 16 months.
"The issue of this hearing is to choose between public safety and public enjoyment," said Wallace J. Cohen, the acting administrator of the Department of Public Works' Office of Policy and Planning. "The department . . . is firm in its view that public safety is our primary goal in this project."
But any discussion of the aesthetics of the antisuicide fence is clearly a source of irritation for the relatives of suicide victims who testified yesterday. "These bridges have become associated in people's minds with suicide," said Benjamin Read, who has led the fight for the safety fence since his 24-year-old daughter leaped to her death from the Ellington Bridge in 1979.
Herndon will render final judgment for Barry after both sides have been heard following additional hearings Tuesday.