Normally, the bridges that take commuters over the Hudson River provide a pleasant view of the river on some days or torturous traffic on others. But they also take some people on a journey to another place.

The bridges of the Lower Hudson Valley have long exerted a fatal lure to the despondent and suicidal. Over the past 10 years, 27 people have leapt to their deaths from the Tappan Zee Bridge and nine from the Bear Mountain Bridge, along with many other attempted suicides.

Now, a spate of attempted and successful suicides on the Hudson Valley bridges, including three incidents this year on the Tappan Zee, has brought renewed focus to suicide deterrence. Echoing a mounting public conversation from San Franciso's Golden Gate Bridge to New York's bridges, mental health experts and public safety officials have been studying ways to stop the dying.

Following a study that examined a range of strategies, bridge authorities have decided to install telephones that connect to a suicide-prevention hotline. But the Tappan Zee and the Bear Mountain bridges will not be modified with physical barriers, which have been installed elsewhere around the country, a remedy that some relatives of suicide victims would like to see.

"Some people think barriers are the be-all and end-all," said Gary Spielmann, who wrote a recent report recommending that the New York state Bridge Authority install suicide-prevention telephones. "As a last resort, we want to make available a last contact. It's what's called a 'human' barrier."

Four phones costing $25,000 will be installed on the Bear Mountain Bridge this spring, one on each end, two in the middle. Three phones are being installed on the Tappan Zee, two on the Westchester side, one of the Rockland side, also at cost of about $25,000. The phones will connect to Lifeline, a suicide-prevention hotline that will staffed 24 hours a day.

The strategy is to break the attraction bridges have on what psychologists call "opportunistic" and "impulsive" suicides. While most suicides take place in mundane settings, such as garages, basements and kitchens, suicides from bridges seem to follow a different psychological pattern.

"It may suggest to people who are suicidal in their thinking that they are entering a new realm, that they are passing from Earth and going to a watery environment," said Spielmann, former director of suicide prevention for the state. "There's a transformational fantasy that attracts people to that place. And because bridges are so majestic, it's a very expressive way of ending one's life. It attracts attention."
'It's so easy'

Joan White lost her daughter, Stephanie, to the fatal allure of the Tappan Zee Bridge in 2004. She said she supports any measure to prevent people from taking their lives on the bridge.

"There's nothing to stop you from going over. It's so easy," said Joan White, 72, a community college administrator. "If there were a barrier, it would have allowed for more time, for someone to help."

Her daughter, a West Nyack resident, was a scholar of Victorian literature who never wore make-up and loved animals. Mental illness robbed her of the things that healthy people take for granted, Joan White said, and it eventually brought her to the edge of the Tappan Zee at the age of 36.

"She had a fixation with the bridge," White said.

It can be hard to say what kind of people are attracted by a death plunge from the bridges, though mental health experts say depression, bipolar disorders and other forms of mental illness are almost always woven through the life stories that end in the Hudson.

Bridges' attraction

The bridges have long attracted those suffering from mental health problems. The first suicide on the Tappan Zee took place in July 1957, about a year and a half after the bridge was completed, when a 31-year-old mother from Ardsley jumped after telling her husband she was going shopping.

Through the years, there have been all kinds of people who have died from leaps from the region's bridges - several clergymen, laborers, a successful documentary filmmaker, people in trouble with the law or those who say, in the words of William Shakespeare, "stretch me no longer on this rough world."

Some leave explicit notes, like a young mother from White Plains in 1959 who left three sets of instructions before she jumped from the Tappan Zee, giving directions for the disposal of her body, her wedding ring and her crucifix, according to press accounts. Many of the jumpers are young. And some leave no clue why they took their lives.

Matthew Narad, 17, a high school student from Cortlandt, belongs in that category. He was good in school, had friends, and worked a part-time retail job. He jumped off the Bear Mountain Bridge in 1997.

Ten years later, his father still has many questions. "I could come up with lists of reasons, but none of them added up to a reason. Maybe it was a chemical imbalance we didn't know about," said Paul Narad of Peekskill, who teaches yoga, tai chi and other alternative health practices.

Narad said putting telephones on the bridges sounded like a good idea, but education among young people - a group especially at risk for suicide because of their impulsivity - was the best answer.

"I'm in favor of anything that will save one life," Narad said. "What's a better idea is education in the school system on suicide prevention. I would highly recommend putting money into education and suicide prevention in schools."

Hard way to die

Whatever the rationale behind a jump from the bridge, there is nothing easy about such a death.

"It's a very unpleasant way to die. People think it's a nice, easy way, but they die with a lot of pain and suffering," said Dr. Fred Zugibe, a pathologist and former Rockland County coroner who has carried out autopsies on about 20 or 30 river suicides.

"It's like hitting a brick wall," said Zugibe, who continues to work in pathology as a consultant and instructor. "At autopsy, the internal organs literally tear loose. ... The mere impact of hitting the water may kill you or render you unconscious, and you either may survive for a time or drown quickly. In many ways, hitting the water by jumping is similar to being hit with an automobile."

Stopping such gruesome injuries has become a major topic for transportation managers around the country, particularly at the Golden Gate Bridge. The authority running that bridge is in the midst of a $2 million study on whether physical barriers should be erected on the span, where more than 1,200 people have died since it was built in the 1930s. The proposal has aroused bitter controversy in San Francisco.

At other "suicide magnets," 370 people died after jumping off the Eiffel Tower in Paris before barriers were erected in 1965 and 16 people plunged off the Empire State Building before a barrier was placed on the observation deck in 1947. But the Hudson River bridge managers have decided against them.

"You can't fence entire spans. It's just not feasible," Spielmann said. "A phone system with a live response will save many more lives. It will identify people who are vulnerable and get them care. We've done our homework, and hopefully it will make a difference."

Barricades on the bridges, besides costing millions of dollars to install, would hinder routine maintenance and snow removal, transportation officials say. Bridge Authority spokesman John Bellucci said the possibility of closing off pedestrian access to the Hudson River bridges was considered, but that would go against state goals to promote recreation and tourism in the region.

Limited video surveillance operates on the Tappan Zee and Bear Mountain bridges, and personnel look for people displaying suicidal behavior. The state police also patrol the spans, and 11 troopers are trained to be "crisis negotiation specialists" to handle suicidal people on the bridges from Albany to the Tappan Zee.

Trained to help

Investigator Joseph Becerra, who went through the training, talked a man off the Tappan Zee two years ago. He said people who hesitate for a short time can be saved from jumping.

"I'm afraid of heights, big time," Becerra said. "I dread when I get a call to go to the bridge. But it's part of the job. You can't always choose the most pleasant location to ply your trade.

"Each incident is different. But you want to get a rapport, tell them you're there to help. The most important thing is to be a good, active listener. It's a matter of earning trust. Don't put pressure on them. If you're a listener, what's bothering them will come out. You can't make any false promises. They'll know."

Those contemplating suicide are often facing tremendous pressure, and death from a bridge can attract a certain kind of person.

"There's a romance and draw to the bridges, and some of it is just the availability," said an expert on suicide, Kay Redfield Jamison.

"The amount of pain and suffering that leads up to suicide is very hard for people to grasp who haven't been very profoundly depressed."

Jamison is a psychiatrist and medical professor from Baltimore who has written extensively on the subject of suicide and mental illness, including a book "Night Falls Fast."

Jamison, who tried to commit suicide as a younger woman, said the public often shows scorn and ridicule toward the issue of mental illness in general and suicide in particular.

"As someone who has an illness that's associated with suicide, it's distressing to see the antipathy toward people who commit suicide - the lack of understanding," she said. "People wouldn't take that attitude with cancer. Some of it's anger toward people who are misunderstood, seen as a weak, or a bother, or they should go quietly off in a corner and do it on their own time."

A little more understanding, compassion and public education could have a beneficial effect. Those who want to fall from great heights, she said, deserve such compassion.