Around 4 a.m. on Oct. 5, Daniel Lomtevas slipped out of his Dyker Heights home. Eight minutes later, the 17-year-old hailed an Uber to take him to 2111 86th Street, Brooklyn and boarded the D train towards Manhattan.
At 7:16 a.m., according to photo metadata, Daniel had reached the George Washington Bridge, which connects Washington Heights and New Jersey. He took a picture around the start of southern pathway, overlooking the Hudson River. Less than 20 minutes later, his unconscious body was brought to New York-Presbyterian hospital. He was pronounced dead about an hour after his arrival there.
Daniel’s parents, Peter and Vera Lomtevas, say they were told that a Port Authority officer had grabbed hold of Daniel as he jumped. Six months after their son’s death, they claim the Port Authority still hasn’t made the officer available to speak with them.
In December, they filed one of two claims in five months against the Port Authority that decry the lack of barriers at the George Washington Bridge.
A Port Authority spokesman declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Suicides have been a fixture at the George Washington since the high-profile death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi in 2010. After 2011, when three people died, the loss of life along the pathway spiked dramatically.
Last year, 12 people jumped to their deaths from the bridge, and 70 people were stopped in the middle of an attempted jump. There were 18 people who died at the bridge each year in 2014 and 2015.
The bridge sees a suicide attempt on average every three to four days.
For years, researchers have argued in favor of installing barriers or other obstructions at high-profile sites. After almost a decade of consideration, construction began this month on a suicide prevention net at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, which has had more than 1,500 deaths since it was built around 80 years ago.
While Port Authority officials have taken some measures that suicide researchers have urged – like posting signs urging suicidal people to call a crisis hotline and placing phones along the pathway – suicide prevention expert Lisa Firestone insists those actions aren’t enough.
Since many suicides are impulsive, restricting access to a means of committing them often results in a decrease, Firestone said. She describes bridge barriers as “a universal population-based public health approach,” similar to reducing crime by installing speed bumps that make it more difficult for criminals to speed off. “They don’t make people less suicidal but they do make it so that, in that impulsive moment when someone is thinking of taking their life, it’s not easily accessible,” Firestone said.
Studies on the subject appear to support the efficacy of bridge barriers. According to a 2007 study in The British Journal of Psychology, the installation of barriers at the Clifton Suspension Bridge, in Bristol, England, did not result in additional suicides at other nearby bridges.
Most suicidal states are temporary and treatable and around 90 percent of people who attempt suicide will go on without any further attempts, Firestone said. Decreasing access to firearms and setting daily purchase limits on the amounts of certain over-the-counter drugs has also been linked to a decrease in suicides.
“The reason bridge barriers are so important is not because so many suicides occur off bridges but because they are almost 100 percent lethal,” she said.
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Daniel Lomtevas had always been a happy, witty and charming young man, according his family. But the summer before his first year of college his demeanor began to change – which they only noticed looking in retrospect. During that summer, Daniel attempted suicide once in August, roughly six weeks prior to his death on Oct. 5 at the George Washington Bridge.
Daniel grew up in Ozone Park, Queens and Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. He attended Fort Hamilton High School, where he was in the honor society.In a photo that ran in press reports of his death, Daniel is wearing black-rimmed glasses and a blue graduation gown, draped with a stole bearing the National Honor Society insignia.
“We knew Daniel to be like this all of his life,” Peter said, motioning to a photograph of Daniel with a bright smile.
“This is a kid who graduated high school with a 90 percent average,” Peter said. “Witty, funny and an incredibly talented writer. And literally, overnight, he became stone-faced. Whatever came over him, came over him incredibly swiftly.”
During his first suicide attempt, Daniel arrived at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge early morning on Aug. 22 and climbed over the guardrail onto an engineering walkway. Once there, he called 911 pleading for help. After his rescue, Daniel admitted to police that he had attempted suicide and that a note would be found at his home.
In his August suicide note, Daniel writes that he had felt suicidal for years and that he didn’t believe mental health could be treated effectively yet.
“We’ll all be forgotten someday and I prefer it sooner than later,” Daniel wrote.
In her complaint, Vera said that the New York Police Department had been called to the family home and arrived around 6 a.m., more than an hour before Daniel jumped. Vera contends that using the Find My iPhone app, the family was able to trace Daniel’s movements as he made his way to the George Washington Bridge, and that family members repeatedly urged police to stop him. They were allegedly told by officers not to worry and that Daniel would be stopped. Despite those assurances, NYPD and the Port Authority allowed Daniel to walk on the ascending walkway and halfway across the span of the southern pedestrian pathway without being challenged in any way, the complaint contends.
NYPD failed to respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
According to a copy of his autopsy report, Daniel died of blunt force trauma to his torso, neck and head. His lungs were reportedly normal, without much water inside them, suggesting he died on impact before his reflex to inhale kicked in.
A second claim, filed in January by Bay Ridge resident and widow Eugena Perlov and her daughter Diana, contends that the suicide of Vladimir Perlov was foreseeable to the Port Authority, given the large number of suicides in recent years, and that the Port Authority has not taken meaningful steps to address the issue.
On the morning of Jan. 28, 2016, according to the complaint, Vladimir drove on to the George Washington Bridge and pulled over, got out of his car and jumped from the north walkway. The impact of the fall caused severe damage to his torso and he died of his injuries at New York-Presbyterian/Allen Hospital.
The complaint states that in the years leading up to Vladimir’s death, the Port Authority “knew of the long history of jumping suicides from the walkways of the George Washington Bridge and the palpable danger the bridge presents to vulnerable individuals invited to use the bridge should the defendant fail to take remedial measures, including the implementation of suicide prevention barriers.”
In 2014, as part of a plan to replace the suspension ropes on the bridge, the Port Authority approved up to $47 million to build a barrier along the walkway.
Vera, Daniel’s mother, scoffed at the timeline the Port Authority has set for the construction of its barrier, which isn’t set to be completed until 2024.
“How many more people are going to die in that time?” she asked.
Firestone also believes the timeline is too slow.
“If a study came out that said 18 people were going to die on the bridge next year because of a mechanical issue, they’d shut it down and fix it,” Firestone said, approvingly quoting a suicide prevention advocate and documentary filmmaker from a New York Times report on the George Washington Bridge.
And while Firestone acknowledges that there are engineering hurdles that can take time to overcome, she questions why there hasn’t been any temporary fencing in the meantime. Temporary fencing had previously been placed on three bridges at Cornell University after several student suicides.
With a suicide rate that has spiked 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, Firestone said the need for suicide barriers has become urgent.
“When you put up barriers, you say to people, ‘Your life matters,’” she said. “That’s important because one of things that happens with suicidal people is they feel they’re a burden, that people don’t care, would be better off without them.”
Six months after their son’s death, Vera and Peter continue to wonder what led their son to feel he had no other choice. Peter has theories based on medical research that a gene, SKA2, which influences how the brain responds to stress, could have contributed. Or, perhaps, that the antidepressant and antianxiety drugs, duloxetine and clonazepam, Daniel was prescribed around a week before his death could have driven him over the edge. But there is no definitive answer.
“We still don’t know what it is,” Peter said. “And without that little barrier, a person’s a goner. Without a net, a gate or a fence – that’s it. Finito.”