Stopping Jumpers on the Golden Gate

  • Share
  • Read Later
The debate over whether to install a barrier on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, the world's most popular place for suicides, is an abstraction for most people. But it is all too real for Kevin Hines. Of the more than 1,200 people who have jumped off the bridge, Hines is one of only 26 to have plummeted the 220 ft. into San Francisco Bay, hit the water at 75 mph and somehow survived. As soon as his hands left the bridge's railing, he says he thought, "I don't want to die."

Haunted by the belief that many other jumpers who didn't survive may have had the same regret, Hines has joined with the Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California, families of victims, and a small group of politicians to make a renewed push to make it harder to jump over the 4-ft. railing that separates the bridge's pedestrian walkway from the water below. As part of the Art Deco structure's 69th anniversary celebration, the coalition has organized a bell-ringing across the city Wednesday afternoon in memory of all those who have died jumping from the bridge.

The campaign's goal is not without precedent. Previous suicide magnets — the Empire State Building, Sydney Harbor Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, and the Mt. Mihara volcano in Japan — have all installed barriers, resulting in dramatic reductions, in some cases to zero, in the number of desperate people who jump.

Debate has raged for more than 30 years over the cost, esthetics and effectiveness of installing a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge, with various proposals made and rejected going as far back as 1970. But momentum has built in the last year, fueled in part by a documentary by filmmaker Eric Steel, who trained his cameras on the bridge for most of the daylight hours in 2004 — not to chronicle a day in the life of the bridge, as he had originally told officials, but to make a film about suicide.

His movie, The Bridge, which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, captures a handful of jumpers as they launch themselves over the railing. His aim, Steel told the San Francisco Chronicle, was to challenge audiences to "talk and think about suicide in profoundly different ways." (Whatever its intentions, some critics have denounced it as reminiscent of a snuff film.) The film opened the same week that the bridge board got the final funding for a $2 million, two-year study into design concepts for a barrier, as well as research into a barrier's environmental, traffic, noise and esthetic impact and effectiveness.

Trying to prevent suicides may seem like a no-brainer, but there are many opponents, and their arguments against building the barrier boil down to three major points:

  • It would be too ugly. There's no denying the breathtaking beauty of the view from the pedestrian walkway of the bridge. Rumor even has it that the reason the railing was reduced from 5 1/2 ft., on the bridge's original plans, to 4 ft., was to give its diminutive chief engineer, Joseph Strauss, a better vantage point. Past designs were derided as being reminiscent of barbed wire surrounding a prison, but proponents of a barrier point to Toronto's Prince Edward Viaduct, where some 500 people had jumped to their death and a new barrier, known as the "Luminous Veil" and completed in 2001, won Canada's Architectural Award of Excellence in 1999. Besides, argues survivor Hines, "what are aesthetics compared to a human life?"

    • It would be too expensive. Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District spokeswoman Mary Currie says ballpark estimates put the cost of a barrier between $15 million and $25 million. "We don't know where those funds would come from," she says. It took over a year just to get the $2 million for the study. Then there is the cost of security cameras, telephones and regular police patrols aimed at stopping jumpers. (About 50 people a year are talked or pulled down before they jump.)

      On average, two people per month are either seen jumping or found in the water. (Many more are believed to jump at night, after the pedestrian walkway is officially closed, and their bodies are sucked out to sea and never found.) What about the cost to the Coast Guard of retrieving bodies? And how can that be balanced against the cost of wasted lives? No one seems to know what those numbers are.

      • It would be pointless. Many opponents argue that, even if the bridge is made safer, suicidal people will just kill themselves elsewhere. But according to landmark 1978 study by Richard Seiden of the University of California, Berkeley, that is not necessarily so. Seiden tracked down 515 people who were stopped from jumping off the bridge between 1937 and 1971, and found that an average of 26 years after their suicide attempt, 94% were still alive or had died from natural causes. "When a person is unable to kill himself in a particular way," Seiden wrote, "it may be enough to tip the vital balance from death to life — findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature." Seiden concluded 28 years ago that "the justification for prevention and intervention such as building a suicide prevention barrier is warranted. And the prognosis for suicide attempters is, on balance, relatively hopeful."

        But almost three decades later, as the bells toll for all those who weren't prevented from jumping, the outlook for getting a barrier built is still as cloudy as San Francisco Bay.