A bridge too high

Vikki Fernandez wants people to know the Concow span on Highway 70 can be deadly

TIER OF TEARS <br>Vikki Fernandez’s boyfriend, Robert Stuart (inset), died when he jumped from a spot above the train tier on the West Branch bridge. He reached that spot under the upper tier by climbing the ladder shown at left. <br><span style="">Photo of Robert Stuart courtesy of Vikki Fernandez.</span>

Vikki Fernandez’s boyfriend, Robert Stuart (inset), died when he jumped from a spot above the train tier on the West Branch bridge. He reached that spot under the upper tier by climbing the ladder shown at left.
Photo of Robert Stuart courtesy of Vikki Fernandez.

Photo By Joe Krulder

Deaths on the tracks: “Not a day goes by that someone isn’t killed on one of our tracks,” said Union Pacific spokeswoman Kathryn Blackwell. Some people use trains for suicide, and the latest deadly fad is for kids to play chicken with trains, waiting until the last moment to jump out of the way. Some don’t make it, and their deaths haunt railroad employees who witness them.

Locals call it “the Concow bridge” or “the West Branch bridge,” but Vikki Fernandez calls it “the bridge of death.” She wants others to see it that way, too.

Last month, on July 16, her boyfriend, Robert William Stuart, died jumping from the upper tier of the Highway 70 overpass that traverses the West Branch of the Feather River where it empties into Lake Oroville.

“He went with friends” for an afternoon of boating on the lake, explained Fernandez, who is 43 and lives in Chico. “They left at about 2 in the afternoon. He dived in around 7 that evening.”

Just why and how Robert jumped isn’t clear. Bereaved and mystified, Fernandez began an investigation. What she found out startled her: “Robert wasn’t the first to die from that bridge.”

In fact, Stuart, 33 when he died, was the fifth person to die jumping from the bridge in recent years, a detail backed by Butte County Search and Rescue captain Mike Larish. More disturbing to Fernandez, however, is that none of the bodies, including Robert’s, has been recovered.

Water depth below the bridge is nearly 200 feet. Search and Rescue divers can go down only about 80 feet before water pressure becomes too intense for them ot operate.

The bridge is two tiered. The upper tier carries vehicular traffic. The bottom tier carries the freight cars and locomotives of the Union Pacific Railroad. Fernandez says that lots of people jump from the lower tier into Lake Oroville. Depending on the reservoir’s level, that jump can be anywhere from 60 to 80 feet.

“Robert jumped from the lower tier many times,” she said. “But as far as I know, Robert never jumped from the upper road. And I don’t know why he chose to do so last July.”

It was smack dab in the midst of the scorching heat wave. Stuart asked Fernandez if she wanted to triple-date and go on a boat outing on Lake Oroville with friends. She chose to stay home, shop for groceries and get some laundry done for the upcoming work week.

Her cell phone rang a little after 7. It was Robert’s friend, Kelly. He wanted the phone number for Robert’s mother.

“That’s when I knew,” said Fernandez.

Details of the events are sketchy, and the friends who were boating with Robert Stuart aren’t talking … much.

“I think it was just too much beer and too much testosterone,” said Tomi Cogan, a friend of Robert’s since before he graduated from Las Plumas High School in 1989. “He was always a bit of daredevil.”

Cogan wasn’t there when he died. “All those that were [there] are just all so shook up,” she said. “I think they feel that they bear some sort of responsibility. It’s all just so sad.”

Fernandez led me down to the underside of the Concow Bridge, where the train tracks are. We hopped over the railing and hiked a short distance down a star-thistle-encrusted hill. There, an unlocked gate allows entrance to the tracks. The only warning is a small “No Trespassing” sign about 15 feet up a concrete stanchion.

“There’s nothing here,” Fernandez said, “nothing. Nowhere is there a sign or plaque warning people not to jump or dive from the bridge.”

Near the gate is a vertical catwalk, a steel ladder that goes up another 40 to 50 feet to the underside of the upper road. There is no gate or guard to keep people from climbing.

“This is what I think happened,” Fernandez said. “Robert has a couple of brews in him. The boat stops under the bridge. He dives from the lower trestle, and then decides to dive from the underside of the upper road.”

Fernandez peered upward, her eyes following the catwalk. The only way Stuart could have made his jump was to go hand over hand over some steel beams emanating from the catwalk until he hovered over the lake, then let go.

“He was such a happy guy,” she said. “It’s been so painful. I just don’t want anyone else to have to go through this.”

For now, Fernandez has teamed up with Robert’s mother, Midge Pilcher, of Oroville. They want some sort of plaque with the names of those who have died jumping from the bridge in place and in plain view.

“It’s become my mission,” she explained. “If we put the names of the people that died, we humanize it, we make it real.”

Kathryn Blackwell, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific in Omaha, said the gate to the train tracks couldn’t be locked because any number of workers might need to use it, especially if a train stopped there.

She did think a sign warning of the danger of jumping from the bridge was a good idea and would convey that to UP’s police force in the area.

Robert Stuart had three children. He was a step-dad to one and had two his own. Without a body, there is no death certificate. Without a death certificate, there are no Social Security benefits for his kids. It’s a seven-year wait without a body to obtain a death certificate, Fernandez said.

“Search and Rescue recommended some deep-down diving firm that could get to the bottom of the lake, out of Sacramento, I think,” she said, “but it cost $12,000, and there are no guarantees.” In August 2000, 26-year-old James Harper died leaping from the bridge. His parents spent the money to search the bottom, but his body never was found.

“Robert had dreams,” said Fernandez, holding back tears. “He wanted to weld. He was taking classes at Butte College on Saturdays, trying to better himself, trying to get into the premier welding school in the Bay Area. He wanted to work on skyscrapers. Live the big-city life.”

As for Fernandez, she just wants to get out of her “funk” by getting a placard placed on the bridge.

“Where the plaque goes, I don’t know.” Vikki sighed and took a long look at the lake. “But people should be aware that lives have been lost at this bridge.”