MassDOT responds to ‘Jaws Bridge’ tragedy

State says Dukes County is on its own.

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The Massachusetts Department of Transportation says it's up to Island towns to enforce the signs they erected at Big Bridge. — George Brennan

Following promises to engage the Massachusetts Department of Transportation concerning the recent Big Bridge tragedy, which claimed the lives of two young men, the Dukes County Commission discussed correspondence from MassDOT sent to the towns of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown.

The fatal incident, resulting in the loss of life of brothers Tavaughn, 21, and Tavaris Bulgin, 26, after jumping off the famous bridge, sparked a lengthy conversation at the commission’s August 17 meeting regarding how to possibly avoid similar tragic events in the future. 

American Legion Memorial Bridge, colloquially “Jaws Bridge” or “Big Bridge,” is not within the county’s jurisdiction, but rather that of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, leaving commissioners’ hands tied when it comes to enforcing restrictions in the area. 

At their previous session, County Manager Martina Thornton told commissioners that numerous prior attempts to seek assistance with bridge safety — including a possible redesign — from MassDOT ultimately were ignored. 

Thornton said the requests were put forth by the county, and the towns of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, but were never replied to until August 30, following the August 14 tragedy. 

A letter made available to the county through Oak Bluffs and Edgartown town administrators shed light on the motivation — or lack thereof — on behalf of the state’s Department of Transportation to offer remedy to what many deem a dangerous site and urgent situation.

“It is well-known that jumping from this bridge is a longstanding local practice that has received sustained attention such that the location has become an informal attraction for both visitors and year-round residents of Martha’s Vineyard,” the letter states. “MassDOT neither endorses nor condones this activity on this bridge, or any other assets owned or maintained by MassDOT’s Highway Division.” 

After receiving notices about the bridge’s safety in the past, MassDOT via District Highway Director Mary-Joe Perry said the department “installed signs several years ago indicating that jumping from this bridge was a dangerous activity that was prohibited,” but now the Vineyard “must rely on local and state law enforcement agencies.” 

“MassDOT strongly encourages the towns of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs to make every effort to help raise awareness of the dangers associated with activities like jumping, and to discourage unsafe behavior,” the letter continues. “Through the combination of continued public discourse and use of local law enforcement, MassDOT believes these efforts will help dissuade dangerous behavior and educate the public to promote a safer environment for all roadway users, including pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers.”

Commissioner Tristan Israel said MassDOT’s response was “nonsense,” and a “typical, bureaucratic, ‘we don’t want to touch this with a 10-foot pole’ letter,” and suggested continuing engaging the department, at least regarding the bridge-adjacent roadway. 

Thornton noted that the county has been in communication with Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, but the two towns have been fairly quiet when it comes to scheduling meeting times.

“This was a horrible event,” Israel said. “If people were to get together, we might be able to make this a safer situation,” acknowledging that views largely vary amongst the commission’s constituents regarding jumping off the bridge. 

Commission chair Christine Todd highlighted the difficulties of a multitown agreement for how to address the bridge issue: “The whole gamut of our population is really participating in this,” she said; “it has become an [Island] attraction.” 

Ultimately, “the responsibility does not fall on the county,” Todd said, but “the county feels concern over the perpetuation of this without any efforts being made to deter the activity.” 

Todd questioned if a solution could even be agreed upon, in the event of a two-town and county meeting. “Aside from putting up a fence,” similar to that on the Bourne Bridge, “people are going to do what they’re going to do,” she said. 

Commissioner Peter Wharton suggested inquiring as to whether town parks committees could move even one lifeguard stand closer to the bridge; though the concern would be that it could have the effect of emboldening jumpers. Wharton questioned, by adding lifeguards, “do we make the activity safer if we can’t restrict it?”

With few other suggestions from commissioners on how to proceed, Thornton made note of various unintentional advertisements involving jumping off Jaws Bridge — inadvertently promoting the activity — and suggested efforts be made to avoid creating or sharing material that encourages the behavior (such as published in papers or printed on T shirts). Additionally, Thornton said, entities such as the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, and others that are responsible for suggesting activities for vacationers, could include warnings about the recent tragedy. 

“That’s a good suggestion,” Todd said. “Certainly we can make an effort, whether it’s successful or not, to encourage those who are promoting it to not promote it anymore. There are certainly plenty of other things that are appealing and attractive [to visitors and residents].” 

Chamber of Commerce executive director Carolina Cooney has already begun initiating the suggestion by Thornton. In a statement sent to The Times, Cooney said, “While jumping off the Jaws Bridge has long been considered a rite of passage for Islanders and visitors alike, taking into consideration recent events, we will certainly not be promoting nor recommending this activity in the future. We also hope this encourages the addition of safety measures at the bridge, such as life preservers and a reaching pole, as well as increased patrols by state and local police.” 

26 COMMENTS

  1. It really didn’t help that it became known as the “Jaws Bridge.” The Island “rite of passage” certainly did not include that name and nobody I know calls it that. It’s even worse than “back door doughnuts” being officially named that – at the front door!

    • It’s still Big Bridge to me! Back door donuts was cool back in the day, now with it’s roped off queue lines and people waiting for an hour or more it’s totally lame.

      • Not to mention insanely expensive. In late August my family got a dozen donuts at Back Door Donuts. Cost was $44.00. Just regular donuts, no apple fritters or anything high end that would skew the price. They are good, but they are not that good.

  2. How about signs that say no jumping at night? Statistically you are probably more likely to get hit by a car, crossing that road to the bridge, than you are dying jumping from it. So we need to just educate the public. But don’t shut it down

  3. These poor boys couldnt swim and didnt know about the tides at night. Jumping during the day has the slightest current and its very easy to move to shore. Good well brought up Christian boys from good families and a great tragedy.

    • Andy- I just want to make sure that I am reading your comment correctly.
      Are you saying there is less of a current during the day ?

    • Andy knows as much about tides as he does about politics. Also could do without the implication that the deaths are more tragic because they were good Christian boys.

    • How can one person be so wrong about so many things? Mr. Engelman has obviously never jumped off the bridge, so he is yet again commenting on something he knows nothing about. I have jumped off Big Bridge at least 100 times. The time of day has exactly zero effect on the current. Sometimes the current is nonexistent. Other times it is flowing rapidly into the pond. Others times it is flowing to the ocean. It depends on the tides and to a lesser extent on the wind. That’s it. Time of day is inconsequential. My condolences to all who know Tavaris and Tavaughn.

  4. Day and night current don’t matter it’s the moon cycle that affects tifes and it was a full moon so that water was really moving a current that is normally say 2-2.5 on a full moon goes to 4-6mph

  5. I jumped it and my kids jumped it multiple times and it was fun and were all ok. You gotta do things responsibly. Daytime & sober. Also, check the tides, currents and undertoes. It’s sad what happened but those 2 were irresponsible. Nighttime is not when you swim the ocean, jump the Jaws bridge or any bridge at all.

  6. These two individuals are not boys. The two brothers were 21 and 26 years old. Non-swimming adults should have the common sense and reading skills to obey the signs. An additional lifeguard, more signs, public education will not prevent high risk persons from undertaking dangerous activities. Adults should take responsibility for their own actions. Young people must learn from their mistakes. its called PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY. Government and laws should not be the baby sitter for the individuals.

  7. I call it 2nd Bridge. The current is significant and climbing those rocks to get out is not easy. During the day there are plenty of people in tbe water helping and encouraging people of all ages. At midnight it’s probably a 50 50 cance that any one would make it. It’s a tragedy. We’ve all done dumb stuff but were lucky enough to survive. God bless these boys and their family. Things can change in an instant.

  8. Some of you may be looking to see your comments here and wondering why they’re not posted. We require first and last names on all comments. I also ask that you be respectful and not speculate on what happened. Stick to what we know. Two young men have died and their families and friends are mourning.

  9. All of the Billions spent to prevent Covid and no push to prevent drownings in children.
    It’s a shame.
    I know they weren’t kids.
    But, kids deaths are triple due to drowning.
    And, no outcry.

    • Dennis– what do you think that we as a society can do to prevent children from drowning ?
      I would speculate with quite a bit of certainty that as a country, we collectively actually do spend billions–lots of them– to prevent children from drowning– Just look at the sales figures for life vests and swimmies for children.
      There are multiple rules and regulations concerning the safety of children around water, including mandated fences around every pool , private or public in the entire country.
      We hire lifeguards have publicly funded programs to teach children to swim and have first responders trained in water rescue and resuscitation specifically for children.
      Efforts to prevent children from drowning have nothing to do with adults who either can’t swim or are poor swimmers jumping into a strong current in the middle of the night.
      As far a covid goes, well, I don’t know what to say except those billions likely kept the death toll from covid from rising into the 10’s of millions.
      Why not talk about the hundreds of billions the military spends every year ?

  10. Where is self accountability?
    Morher, father, family and friends lost two young men that had a place in their lives. One decision to jump was made and it now has changed all their lives and potentially ours in the future.
    Life and death, fun and exciting, all choices have Consiquentces.

  11. Every high school should do something like this. So many would benefit especially inner city kids.

    https://www.sbp.org/news/full-news-story/~board/latest-news/post/inside-the-new-water-adversity-challenge-wac

    It’s a bit extreme but this school has changed lives and saved some too.

    You should see the video with the students, New Jersey State Police and Navy Seals Building Bridges Program. Nothing like in the entire country. Look at the schools they go on to. UPenn, Yale, NYU, Brown, ND. It’s a model that should be copied.

    • Do you have a full list of the schools and the number of students accepted?
      Per student cost of the program?
      Anecdotal success is such fun.

      • Just one school St. Benedict’s Prep. 150 per class. Tuition is 12k per year and 90 percent receive financial assistance. Anything else? Did you read the story?

  12. Sad tragedy… But they weren’t “boys” they were men. I’m not saying it to sound mean but come on… So many love the bridge jump – it’s so much fun. Accidents happen and this happened because of circumstances that the men choose. It’s a risk for all and MANY more have fun! I can guarantee most would not and DON’T jump at night.

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