Fewer people have been climbing on and jumping off the bridge at Settles Bridge Park in the two weeks since a young man drowned in the Chattahoochee River at that spot.
Officials aim to keep it that way.
“(Law enforcement rangers) said that last Saturday they issued three citations,” said Bill Cox. “That’s not a bad Saturday up there. So apparently we’re getting less traffic there.”
Cox serves as the superintendent of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. He and the rest of CRNRA have been concerned about people jumping off the bridge at Settles Bridge Park for a while.
“It’s always kind of been there,” Cox said.
But their concern became more public after Joshua Katikala, 20, died after jumping off the bridge with friends on Aug. 16. Katikala’s death came two weeks after Mountain View High School soccer player Perez Tamfu drowned making the same jump on July 30.
Climbing on the structure is illegal. The bridge was built in the early 1900s to take the place of a ferry that previously took people across the Chattahoochee River. Over time, it fell into disuse because it wasn’t built to handle the weight of modern cars.
But the bridge is also dangerous. Jumpers fall about 25 feet before hitting the Chattahoochee below. Cox said he’s even heard of some people jumping from the top of the structure — a fall of closer to 50 feet.
Then there’s the Chattahoochee itself. The Buford Dam periodically opens downriver, pushing cold, swift water from the bottom of Lake Lanier into the river.
“These are risky conditions for jumping off a bridge,” Cox said.
The CRNRA has tried previously to warn the public about jumping off the bridge at Settles Park. Long before Katikala or Tamfu’s deaths, the agencies put up signs and patrolled the area alongside Gwinnett County Police officers.
Cox said the signs were tossed in the Chattahoochee and citations and warnings from law enforcement were ignored.
“We could have somebody sitting in a boat shouting up at people on the bridge not to jump,” he said. “After the boat pulled away, they’ll still do it.”
After the recent drownings, officials have redoubled their efforts. Early last week, the CRNRA posted new warning signs on either side of the bridge. Nobody had pulled the signs out as of Friday afternoon.
“Hopefully they’ll stay there this time,” Cox said.
Patrols at Settles Bridge Park have picked up, too. Gwinnett PD Cpl. Michele Pihera said Gwinnett officers have “added extra patrols when available.” And Cox said his five rangers have been making a conscious effort to focus more attention to the area.
But officials aren’t stopping there. Cox said he expects to meet in the coming weeks with officials from Gwinnett County, Forsyth County and the State Preservation Office to discuss additional strategies for keeping people off the old bridge.
“I’m relatively sure it’ll happen in September sometime,” he said.
Cox said he plans to use the meeting to bring up an action he’s been considering since Tamfu’s death — removing the beams that connect the bridge to land. That way, people wouldn’t be able to get onto the structure unless they climbed the rocky foot, which would be impossible for most.
The bridge is considered a “cultural resource,” so the CRNRA can’t make that change without the State Preservation Office’s blessing.
“I don’t know yet if we can take those off and have the bridge be structurally sound,” Cox said. “I don’t want it to fall into the water.”
Officials are also expected to use the meeting to make sure they know exactly which agencies have authority in the Settles Bridge Park area. Cox said he understands that the CRNRA and Gwinnett County share jurisdiction in the area. But he wants to pour through deeds just to make 100 percent sure. That way, officials will know the citations they issue to people climbing on the bridge will have teeth.
“Sometimes people don’t want to pay their ticket. They want to fight it in court,” Cox said. “That’s their right. We just want to make sure we’re on solid ground.”
That meeting is still a few weeks off. But in the meantime, Cox said he’s been encouraged by the lack of climbers and jumpers on the bridge at Settles Bridge Park.
“It seems like people are getting the message,” he said.