Sequim business leaders and community members are in mourning this week after the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office reported its findings that Sequim resident Jeri Lyn Smith, 68, likely jumped from the Elwha River Road bridge west of Port Angeles over the weekend.
Search and rescue efforts on Jan. 7-8, including a Coast Guard helicopter on Monday flying over the area were unsuccessful in finding her body, said Brian King, Clallam County chief criminal deputy.
“We’re suspending our search pending any new information,” King said. “We believe, based on the evidence we have now and her history, that she jumped off the bridge.”
About two dozen search and rescue personnel from the Sheriff’s Office, Clallam Fire Districts 2 and 3 and the Elwha Police Department scoured the Elwha River banks late Sunday and all day Monday for Smith’s body.
“Typically, bodies tend to surface after time,” King said. “We are confident that if she were in a place where she could be recovered today, she would have been recovered.”
Smith, a retired employee of the Sequim-Dungeness Valley Chamber of Commerce, was honored at the group’s Tuesday afternoon meeting at Sunland Golf & Country Club with community members holding a moment of silence for her.
“We’ve lost a very important member of our community,” said the Chamber’s executive director Shelli Robb-Kahler.
“And she missed us so much that after she retired she came back and volunteered for us and filled in many roles and normally you would see her today at the luncheon, so we miss her dearly even though many of us have far more questions than answers right now …
“Our hearts are all breaking.”
Robb-Kahler told the audience that Smith had “a very deep and strong faith.”
“She was very diligent about that and I know she wouldn’t want us to mourn for too long and she would want us to celebrate her life and celebrate Jeri’s personal belief that she is now at peace and resting in a much better place,” Robb-Kahler said.
Ron Smith, Jeri Smith’s husband, told authorities he noticed his wife was missing mid-day Sunday after he returned home from church.
“They are a fairly large family in Sequim with a lot of history in the Sequim Valley,” King said.
Smith was named Grand Marshal of the 2009 Sequim Irrigation Festival.
She had been hospitalized with depression, was suicidal “several times” in the past and on at least one occasion had talked about jumping from the span, King said.
Ron Smith had looked for her Sunday afternoon before he found her car parked in a small turnout on the west end of the bridge at about 6:20 p.m.
When authorities arrived, the vehicle was cool to the touch, King said.
A scent dog tracked the woman’s scent from her car to the center of the bridge, where evidence of her presence ended.
Search and rescue personnel from the Sheriff’s Office and Clallam Fire District 3 searched the river banks near the bridge Sunday night and set off downriver in kayaks Monday morning, stopping first at a large log jam.
For now the search for Smith is suspended, but King said they’ll go back out if new information comes in and/or water levels change.
The river was about 12 feet deep just below the bridge and running at about 2,500 cubic feet per second, which is about 1,000 cubic feet per second faster than normal, King said.
“There’s a lot of traffic along the river that could see her too,” he said.
The $19.7 million Elwha River Bridge stands 85 feet above the river and was built on Elwha River Road in 2009. Its 14-foot-wide pedestrian path that hangs below the automobile deck is unusual compared to other bridges and Smith’s suspected death would be the first by suicide from the bridge since it was built.
It opened Sept. 25, 2009, replacing a century-old, one-lane span across the waterway.
The Port Angeles City Council has added construction of suicide barriers on the bridges to the city’s 2018-2023 capital facilities plan and will consider short- and long-term options at its next regular meeting Jan. 16.
Paul Gottlieb is a Senior Staff Writer with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.