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For NC park rangers, confronting suicide is the worst part of the job

Park ranger Nick Dioguardi picks dogbane Tuesday near Big Lake at Umstead Park. The plant will be be used in a rope-making demonstration in an upcoming park youth program. Diogaurdi has responded to two suicide calls at the park in recent months. State and national parks cite suicide as a top cause of death, behind accidental falls and drownings.
Park ranger Nick Dioguardi picks dogbane Tuesday near Big Lake at Umstead Park. The plant will be be used in a rope-making demonstration in an upcoming park youth program. Diogaurdi has responded to two suicide calls at the park in recent months. State and national parks cite suicide as a top cause of death, behind accidental falls and drownings. tlong@newsobserver.com

Nick Dioguardi was interviewing for his dream job as a North Carolina State Parks ranger when he got a question that made him pause.

If a visitor committed suicide in a park, and Dioguardi was the first to reach the body, was he ready to handle it?

“You’re sitting there in your suit and tie, and you want to answer the way you know they want you to answer,” Dioguardi recalled. “But I had to stop for a second and say, ‘Am I?’ ”

Since he was sworn in as a ranger earlier this year and started work at William B. Umstead State Park, Dioguardi has had to test his readiness – twice – at suicides just a week apart in September. In October, there was another suicide at a neighboring state park site, Falls Lake Recreation Area north of Raleigh.

Since 2005, 22 people have killed themselves in North Carolina state parks, making suicide a leading cause of death in the park system, behind drowning and tied with cardiac arrest.

It’s a problem in national parks as well. From 2003 to 2009, 21 people committed suicide in the three national parks that are partially or completely located within the state. The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, running from Virginia to North Carolina and the most-visited unit of the national park system, counted the most suicides of any national park during that period with 15.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most people who take their own lives do so at home, suicide on park lands is a public health issue that aggrieves families and traumatizes visitors and staff. And it consumes scarce resources as rangers and rescuers try to find despondent people and stop them from hurting themselves.

There is little research to indicate why someone intent on taking his own life would go to a public park to do so, in violation of the naturalist’s motto to “Take only memories and leave only footprints.”

Dave Cook, north district superintendent for the state parks, joined the state Division of Parks and Recreation in the 1980s and has helped conduct many searches for people who were suspected of having come to a park with the idea of dying there. He looks out the window of his office on the edge of Falls Lake, where he often sees peregrine falcons and bald eagles, and offers his theory.

“I think there are two reasons,” Cook said. “One is that they have some attachment to that particular place. Maybe they hiked there a lot, or maybe they just came there once, but they knew that park and they liked it.

“The others, they may never have been in that park before. They just want to be someplace beautiful.”

‘It’s different every day’

In keeping with suicide statistics nationwide, about 80 percent of those who have taken their lives in the parks are men. They choose a variety of means of self-injury. The deaths happen in all seasons and in all types of terrain.

In 2010, the CDC compiled a report on suicides in national parks in which the agency characterized the deaths as preventable and recommended two approaches to help. The CDC suggested that each park collaborate with community suicide-prevention programs to get training for park staff, and that parks consider restricting access or installing physical barriers at obvious sites such as bridges.

But the report acknowledged the challenge of managing a natural resource for the enjoyment of the public while trying to limit the ways in which a determined person could hurt himself.

“It’s very difficult to address the ideas that people may come up with when you’re talking about suicide or self-harm,” said the parkway’s chief ranger, Neal Labrie. “People are going to seek out what’s going to work for their purposes. Designing around that is difficult.”

Last month, authorities conducted an intensive, dayslong long search for a Roanoke, Va., man believed to have jumped from a Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the Roanoke River. His body was found a week after he was reported missing. After discussions with man’s family, Labrie said, the park service is considering installing a sign, visible only to someone walking on that bridge, that would provide a suicide hotline number or suggest other help.

Another matter is the intentional remoteness of national and state park land; across vast stretches of acreage, the ratio of park staff to visitors is often so low that many people never encounter a ranger.

And yet, recognizing signs of despondency and knowing how to approach someone in distress are among the many skills rangers are expected to have at their disposal.

As they are in national parks, the more than 170 rangers at work in North Carolina state parks are sworn officers who go through the same basic law enforcement training as most police. They stop speeders and enforce park regulations. They also offer first aid to hikers with twisted ankles. They lead interpretive programs, help build exhibits, repair structures, construct trails, and inventory and protect plants and wildlife. They clean bathrooms and pick up trash.

“It’s the greatest job,” Dioguardia said. “It’s different every day. But it has its ups and downs.”

Signals come late

Dioguardia, 26, is a New Jersey native who got his first taste of park management at age 4, when he earned a Junior Ranger badge at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. From then on, he said, he knew this was the kind of work he wanted to do.

He moved to North Carolina to get a degree in environmental studies, and in 2011 took a seasonal job at Umstead. He landed a full-time ranger position last fall, went to Wake Tech for 20 weeks of basic law-enforcement training, graduated in June and came back to work at Umstead.

Late on the afternoon of Sept. 22, Dioguardia was looking for a spot where rangers suspected someone had been illegally hunting when he got a call from a local police department about a man whose wife feared he had gone into the park planning to commit suicide. He had even messaged her with the name of the trail where he could be found.

It’s not the busiest trail in the 5,579-acre park but popular enough and easy to access. It winds through a mix of tall pine, oak and maple trees. It’s hilly and far enough from traffic to be quiet. It crosses a small creek. This time of year, it smells like leaves crushed under the soles of hiking boots and running shoes.

Rangers found the man’s car in a nearby parking lot and sprinted into the woods, hoping to intervene as they know others have sometimes been able to do.

“We didn’t know what we were going to find,” Dioguardia said. Following his training, he wore a bulletproof vest and had his gun drawn in case the man, in his distress, tried to harm him.

When they found the man, three-fourths of a mile down the trail, he was already dead.

A week later, Dioguardia was with a group of kids on the edge of one of Umstead’s lakes, teaching them to tie a hook onto a fishing line to catch crappie and bluegill, when he got another call. A park visitor had heard a gunshot and seen a body.

The children could hear the sirens of the emergency vehicles coming into the park, so Dioguardia told them calmly that someone had been hurt and he needed to go help. He left the group with their adult chaperones and went to a site near the confluence of two streams. Though rescuers arrived within minutes, the man was dead, his body at rest on a log, adjacent to a well-used fishing hole and visible from a park road.

Some searches for suicidal people in parks take days and require 30 or 40 people, including specialized teams who know how to look for those who don’t want to be found. If a person is found critically injured or dead in a rugged landscape, it can take hours to extract them, and hours more to process the evidence at the scene.

Park officials say rangers and other staff members are offered counseling if they need help with what can be a traumatic experience. Dioguardia said he has benefited from talking to his close friends and family. He has had to fight the urge to wonder whether he might have prevented either of those deaths if he had done something different those days.

While other state parks have spectacular rock formations or scenic rivers, Dioguardia said, what Umstead has is history. All over the park are the foundations of houses and other buildings that made up farming communities on this land before the federal government began turning spent fields into a recreation area in the 1930s.

Part of his job as a caretaker of the park is to make sure that Umstead’s 1.5 million visitors a year have no idea as they walk a trail or stare into a meandering creek that something tragic recently happened here. After the police and the coroner left the site of the Sept. 22 death, Dioguardia, working by flashlight, cleaned everything up.

The next day, there was no trace.

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