On the morning Cheryl Rogers found her son missing, her mind quickly turned to the bridge.
A suicidal son, an iconic bridge and the struggle to keep people from jumping
Dozens of people have leaped to their deaths from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge since it opened in 1952. Cheryl Rogers fought to keep her son from becoming one of them.
When an officer ordered him down, her son responded by walking higher and higher until he reached one of the bridge’s tallest towers. Then he began pacing along the top.
A police car rushed to pick up Rogers and her ex-husband and bring them to the negotiation site that morning on Oct. 3, 2020. As she sat in the cruiser with its siren wailing, Rogers flashed back to the same ride she’d taken just six weeks earlier.
For years, her son — whom The Washington Post agreed not to name — had struggled with depression. But during the early months of the pandemic, it had turned into something darker, deeper.
Gone was the goofy, kindhearted jokester who liked photobombing family pictures. Instead, her son now worried constantly that his phone and tablet were hacked and being used to surveil him. He became obsessed with online diatribes about how America was turning into a riotous socialist state. He draped towels over the TV to prevent it from watching him.
Then came the summer night when he took his mother’s truck and drove to Maryland’s longest bridge — a 4.3-mile steel suspension span hanging, at its highest point, more than 180 feet above the water.
He climbed over a jersey wall onto the outer edge and refused to come down, police records show, triggering a crisis that created gridlock and took 21 hours to resolve.
In the days that followed, no one told his parents what to do. After he’d spent two weeks in the hospital, his health insurance ran out and he was released, Rogers said.
They tried to get a psychiatrist for him. They tried to get him therapy, crisis counseling, an adjustment in his medications.
“Everyone we called told us they can’t do anything. As an adult, he had to make the appointment himself,” Rogers said. “He didn’t think there was anything wrong with him, so of course he wouldn’t call.”
Rogers and her ex-husband felt utterly alone in their fight to save their son. And they lived in dread that he would try it again.
Six weeks later, he was back on the bridge.
This time it took police seven hours to rescue him, setting off another round of vitriol from drivers stuck in traffic and others on Twitter, Facebook and local chat groups:
“Mr attention seeker at it again.”
“Shoot the guy.”
“Taze him and let him fall in the water.”
“You wanna jump, you jump!!!...is it ok to ruin the weekend for other people—no!”
Rogers couldn’t understand the reaction.
“Why don’t they care about the human standing on top of the bridge?” she asked. “That he needs help? That he’s in pain?”
The volume and intensity of the response also shocked local officials on both sides of the bridge.
“For years, the bridge has been almost an elephant in the room. This thing in our backyard that people are drawn to but we couldn’t do anything about,” said Kathryn Dilley, who oversees mental health for five of Maryland’s Eastern Shore counties. “Suddenly, we were all looking at each other and saying, ‘Why? Why aren’t we doing more?’ ”
Dilley and others began meeting twice a month, convening an ad hoc task force to find solutions. “We’re trying to help those on the bridge, but it’s bigger than that.”
The bridge in many ways is a symbol, she said, in a state where patients often face long wait times for mental health care and few long-term treatment options.
“It’s the end point for many failed by the mental health system,” she said. “The question is what are we as a state, as a society, willing to do to help them.”
For Rogers, the question in the wake of her son’s back-to-back attempts was less philosophical, more urgent: What could she do to prevent him from trying to kill himself again?
‘The worry is contagion’
When it first opened on July 30, 1952, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was hailed as an engineering and political marvel — the world’s longest continuous steel structure over water at that time, uniting Maryland’s cities and suburbs with its rural Eastern Shore.
It took just eight weeks for the bridge to become something else, as well.
On a September Friday shortly before noon, a Baltimore engineer parked his convertible in the middle of the span and leaped to the waters below. Since that first death, suicides have continued with disturbing frequency — and they increased sharply in the first year of the pandemic.
For years, authorities have avoided discussing the number of suicides and their efforts to deter them, even as the state explores building a new span to relieve traffic congestion.
“It’s not that any of it is secret, but the worry is contagion,” explained Sgt. Brady McCormick, spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which is in charge of the bridge. The agency often dissuades media from reporting suicide attempts on the bridge for fear it could cause future ones. “We don’t want to create the impression that this is a common or accepted place where suicide happens,” McCormick said.
But researchers and advocates have pushed for such data, arguing it’s necessary to understand the scope of the problem and address it.
From 1952 to 1967, there were roughly 10 attempted suicides, according to newspaper stories from that time. From 1968 — when bridge authorities began keeping records — to 1993, there were 48 deaths, five suspected deaths with unrecovered bodies and 45 additional attempts, news reports show.
In response to an information request from The Post, the transportation authority released data from 2014 to 2021, during which there were 32 deaths and 33 non-fatal attempts.
Over the years, the transportation authority has added cameras on the bridge — which is crossed by about 118,600 vehicles daily on summer weekends and about 68,600 on non-summer weekdays — to more quickly spot those in crisis. It installed emergency call boxes and posted signs with suicide prevention information. Eight transportation authority patrol officers now serve on a team that specializes in crisis negotiation.
Sgt. Ed Bartlinski, who leads the team, said he approaches those on the bridge as fellow human beings. “I want them to know I’m there to help. … Sometimes you’re at a loss for words, so I tell them, ‘I don’t know what to say right now, but I’m here to listen.’ ”
During the past two years, those efforts have been supplemented by the newly formed Bay Bridge Partnership, which includes crisis response officials from Anne Arundel County (west of the span) and the Eastern Shore, as well as local hospitals, state health leaders and mental health advocates.
The partnership has run suicide prevention radio ads on the Eastern Shore and begun dealing with cases on the bridge together, remaining in contact with those who are talked down.
Anne Arundel’s officials have been especially active because those rescued from the bridge are often transported to Anne Arundel Medical Center.
Debra Brannan, a member of the Anne Arundel crisis response system, often meets them at the hospital. “We help with anything we can — picking up belongings, worries about evictions, pets left alone at home,” she said.
She also tries to talk openly with them about their desire to kill themselves. “Suicide is like this cunning and deceitful friend. As long as they carry it as an option in their back pocket, they don’t get better,” she said. “Often, it’s not until they’re willing to give up that option that they find other ways to cope.”
The county’s crisis response teams are unique in having police officers embedded full time alongside mental health clinicians. Lt. Steven Thomas, who leads the law enforcement side, and his officers have driven people who wanted to kill themselves on the bridge to therapist appointments, court appearances and drug recovery centers. His team has traveled as far as Virginia and Pennsylvania to follow up with people. “That time in the car, just driving and talking with them, that’s what lets you build a relationship,” he said.
But the most promising intervention — one that many in the group believe could save the most lives — has been ignored: erecting suicide barriers on the bridge.
‘This. Is. It.’
Decades of research has shown nets and barriers to be the most effective measure against bridge suicides. Because of the impulsive nature of many suicides, taking away easy access drastically reduces deaths.
In 2003, Toronto erected barriers at its most lethal bridge, which averaged nine suicides a year. In the decade that followed, suicides dropped to almost zero. When D.C. authorities installed fencing at the Duke Ellington Bridge, which crosses Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington, suicides decreased by 90 percent, and jumps at nearby bridges did not increase.
Such barriers, however, often face opposition because of cost, aesthetics and logistics.
For years, the Golden Gate Bridge has been the site of more suicides than any other span in North America, but it took decades of intense debate and more than 1,800 deaths before leaders finally agreed to erect a steel-net barrier. The barrier is scheduled to be completed next year at a cost that has risen to $215 million.
The idea of erecting barriers on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge dates back to at least 1995. It came up again two years ago after the back-to-back attempts by Cheryl Rogers’s son, when officials briefly discussed installing netting before dismissing it. They cited wind issues and the possibility that people could just leap again from the nets.
Eileen Zeller, who chairs the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Suicide Prevention, disagrees with that assessment.
“We know barriers work, and it’s been talked about, but no one has taken up the reins yet to fight for it,” Zeller said. “We need data, advocacy and stories of real people in order to show the need for it on the Bay Bridge.”
Brandi Care Hicks is one of those real people. For years, in hopes of helping others, she has shared the story of her suicide attempt on the Bay Bridge at age 17.
“I didn’t wake up thinking this is the day I’m going to kill myself,” she said of her jump in 1998. “I woke up with a sense of dread — about homework and all the responsibilities in my life.”
On paper, she looked highly accomplished — junior class president, National Honor Society member, field hockey player. In reality, she was deeply depressed. As she journaled about her feelings that Sunday morning, her despair kept increasing.
Suddenly, the bridge came to mind. Her family lived in Severna Park — 20 minutes away — and she had crossed the bridge countless times growing up.
She drove there and leaped.
“The impact was like hitting concrete,” she said. As rescuers pulled her onto a boat, the pain was staggering.
Many who survive bridge suicide attempts say they regretted their actions the moment they jumped. For Brandi, she mainly recalls the three last words that went through her mind before throwing herself off the bridge: “This. Is. It.”
When she thinks of that moment now, she feels overwhelming sadness and compassion for the 17-year-old girl who felt like her entire life could be reduced to those three meaningless words.
She went on to graduate from college, marry, become a vice president at Marriott International and have two teenage children of her own.
“I have this amazing life now. I still struggle and that day will always be a part of me,” she said. “But I really feel like if I had gotten help sooner, it wouldn’t have come to that.”
‘Out to get him’
For Cheryl Rogers’s son, the emotional struggles began when he was a child, after his older brother died of a brain tumor.
As a teen, he took medication for depression. In his 20s, he scared his parents by buying a rifle and sitting for hours at his brother’s grave. “The question he kept coming back to was how come his brother died and not him,” Rogers said.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, he pulled his life together and was the healthiest his family had seen. His parents were divorced but still occupied the same house. He lived in the basement and worked diligently with his dad painting houses.
It was amid the isolation of the pandemic that the paranoia began.
“He stopped using his cellphone. He wouldn’t talk in the house because he worried people were listening,” she said. “He thought everyone was out to get him.”
Suspicious his food was being poisoned, he began eating only prepackaged items — cold canned ravioli, ramen noodles, crackers. He lost so much weight that his stomach looked caved in.
The first time her son climbed onto the Bay Bridge, the standoff lasted all night and late into the next day. Traffic backed up for miles in both directions and tempers flared among vacationers trying to get to the beach on a peak summer weekend. According to court records, the 37-year-old told police that a neighbor wanted to kill him, that county workers had pumped poison into his home, that ESPN commentators were spying on him through the TV.
Rogers and her ex-husband spent the night in the break room used by transportation police next to the bridge. At one point, Rogers passed a control room inside the police barracks and froze at live surveillance video of her son sitting on a suspension cable. She forced herself to turn away, realizing how devastating it would be to witness his death if he jumped.
When police finally brought him down safely, she cried and hugged him and told him, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
But it wasn’t.
The second time her son went to the bridge, he climbed even higher. After seven hours, he lunged as if he was going to jump, she said, but officers were able to grab him.
Afterward, police charged him with eight counts of trespassing, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct and failure to obey lawful orders. The goal was to force him to get mental help, officials involved said, the treatment he had refused to get the first time around. But the charges had an unintended effect.
At his bail hearing, Rogers’s son begged repeatedly not to be sent to jail. His parents and county crisis workers also raised concerns that jailing him without treatment could worsen his fragile mental health. But District Court Administrative Judge John P. McKenna was not persuaded.
“What’s the plan,” asked McKenna, according to a court audio recording of the hearing, “to prevent the closure of the Bay Bridge and all those people, their lives being interrupted?”
“I’ll give up my license,” Rogers’s son pleaded. “I’ll just ride with my dad to work. That will 100 percent prevent me from even driving over the bridge or any bridge.”
“That’s not a guarantee I can accept,” the judge replied. “He has a problem that is now the problem of thousands of people. He endangered a lot of people doing what he did. It’s not a matter of punishment. It’s a matter of preventing it from happening again.”
McKenna did not respond to requests for comment about the case.
While others charged with armed robbery, abduction and assault with a deadly weapon were released on bond that day, Rogers said, her son was not.
He remained in jail for a month — most of it on an isolated suicide-watch unit, his mother said, with little human interaction, no real mattress, and no shoes, socks or mental health treatment.
The experience confirmed his belief that the world was out to get him.
“That was the beginning of the end,” Rogers said. “He was never the same after that.”
Anne Arundel’s crisis response team eventually persuaded a different judge to release Rogers’s son into its care, promising to check on him at home several times a week and drive him to mental health appointments.
But four months later — panicked about an impending court hearing — he drove to a highway overpass in Howard County and had to be talked down.
On Aug. 14, 2021, his parents tried to get him to go with them to a family reunion. He said no. For weeks, he’d been refusing to leave the house for anything except work, worried that the government was looking for any excuse to send him back to jail.
When his parents returned from the reunion, they discovered their son’s body. He hadn’t jumped from a bridge. He’d killed himself at home.
Since his death, Rogers has questioned what she could have done to save his life. If she’d stayed home instead of going to the reunion. If she’d persuaded the judge not to send him to jail. If she’d gotten him more-effective treatment before he wound up on the bridge. If those stuck in traffic had offered support instead of hurling insults.
“It felt like we were fighting this battle, alone and isolated,” she said. “But I want other families to know they’re not alone. There are people trying to help.”
As Rogers mourned, she thought about her son’s desperate pleas in court to be sent home and not to jail. So instead of burying him, she cremated his remains and brought him back to the house they’d once shared.
She wishes she could tell those thinking of going to the bridge what she always wanted her son to know: “That there are people who love them. That they shouldn’t give up on themselves. That there’s always a better way.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. You can also reach at a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Story editing by Lynda Robinson, photo editing by Mark Miller, video editing by Jayne Ornstein, copy editing by Thomas Heleba and Martha Murdock, design by Talia Trackim.