Beauty and Death: A World-Famous Icon’s Dark Side

by John Bateson

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. While there have been many celebrations to commemorate the design, construction and beauty of the world’s most famous span, one thing that has received relatively little attention is the fact that the bridge continues to be the top suicide site on earth.

The first suicide occurred mere weeks after the bridge opened in 1937. A 47-year-old World War I veteran walked halfway out on the bridge, told a stranger “This is as far as I go,” and jumped.

Since then, there have been 1,600 confirmed deaths though many other suicides haven’t been confirmed because a body wasn’t found—either it sank too quickly or was washed out to sea. In these instances the person officially is considered “missing.”

In 2011 there were 37 confirmed suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s the second-highest total in the past 15 years and the fourth highest total in history. Another 100 people were stopped from jumping by Bridge Patrol and California Highway Patrol officers. In other words, every two-and-a-half days last year, someone went to the Golden Gate Bridge and either jumped or was stopped from jumping.

Here are a few facts that many people—including people in the San Francisco Bay Area—may not know:

- One reason why the bridge is so deadly is because the roadway is 220 feet above the water. The Golden Gate Bridge was the first bridge in the world to be built at the mouth of a major harbor, and it had to be tall enough for large ships to pass underneath.

- The original design for the bridge called for a higher railing specifically to prevent suicides. In a last-minute decision, the railing was lowered to enhance the view.

- The vast majority of victims live locally. Eighty percent reside within an hour’s drive of the bridge, and 93 per cent live in California.
It’s not just single men suffering from mental illness who jump. Ten per cent of victims are adolescents. Adult jumpers, meanwhile, include every profession. Many are married with children.

- Because of the short railing, at least three young children have been thrown over the side by suicidal parents who jumped after them. In one instance, a five-year-old girl was told to jump by her father, and complied, whereupon he followed her to his death.

- About 5 per cent of jumpers survive the fall. Bones shatter, organs burst, victims plunge deep below the surface and ultimately, they drown. Far from being a fast and painless way to die, jumping from the bridge can produce final minutes that are excruciating and terrifying.

- At one time, the Golden Gate Bridge had a safety net. It was installed during construction at a cost of $120,000 (the equivalent of $2 million today) to protect bridge workers. At various times, 19 men fell into it and were saved. When construction was completed, the net was removed.

- One section of the bridge has had a barrier for years. It’s a chain-link fence, eight feet high and 350 feet long. It’s not pretty, and it’s not intended to prevent suicides. It’s to keep people from dumping trash onto visitors below, at Fort Point.

So why should anyone care that people are throwing themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge? First off, if someone you love—your child, spouse, parent, sibling or close friend—was climbing over the railing, you’d want them to be saved. If you were there, and there was no physical reason for them to want to die, you’d be reaching for them frantically, trying to pull them back, working desperately to talk them out of it. If you knew that your loved one was headed to the bridge, or had a loaded gun, or had stockpiled medication, and planned to end his or her life, you would probably do anything to stop the attempt. You would stop it because you know something that your loved one doesn’t—that suicide is a permanent response to what may be a temporary or treatable problem.

Second, it’s natural to care when people die unnecessarily. Suicide is the most preventable form of death, and according to studies published by the American Medical Association, one of the two most effective ways to prevent suicides is to restrict access to lethal means. In other words, bridge barriers save lives. So do gun locks and blister caps on medications. (The other way is to provide more training to physicians and clinicians in the assessment and effective treatment of suicide.)

Third, when someone dies by suicide, it’s not just loved ones who suffer. It’s all of us. All of us miss out on the skills and talents the victim has or could have developed—current or future doctors, engineers, artists, inventors and caregivers. The most common occupation of Golden Gate Bridge jumpers is student. The second most common is teacher.

The Golden Gate Bridge is the only major international landmark without a suicide barrier. From the Eiffel Tower to the Empire State Building, St. Peter’s Basilica to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, every other one-time suicide magnet has had a barrier erected. The Golden Gate Bridge has not. Its short, four-foot-high railing can be surmounted by almost anyone.

Even the smallest deterrent helps. People have decided not to jump because they couldn’t find a parking space at the bridge, or because they arrived after the pedestrian walkway was locked at night. One 31-year-old housewife didn’t jump because her skirt was so tight that she couldn’t lift her leg over the short railing, and she was too modest to take it off.

To date, 32 people are known to have survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. Nearly all were young—in their teens and early 20s. All were saved by a series of circumstances bordering on the miraculous: they hit the water just right to survive the impact; they were able to stay afloat despite broken bones, damaged organs, and massive internal bleeding; their jump was witnessed and rescuers arrived quickly; and they received prompt medical attention and psychiatric care.

Most survivors have said afterward that they wanted to live as soon as they went over the side. In the words of one man, “I realized that everything in my life that I thought was unfixable was totally fixable, except for having just jumped.” Of equal note, the survivors say that they didn’t have a Plan B. It was the Golden Gate Bridge or nothing.

It’s hard for others to understand this, especially people who have never thought of killing themselves, but many suicidal individuals fixate on one means of death. If that means isn’t available to them, they don’t choose another means. Instead, they choose to live. Moreover, many go on to lead happy, healthy and productive lives. In the case of the man quoted above, who jumped in 1986, he has been a high school teacher for the past 20 years.

The Final Leap tells the story of Golden Gate Bridge suicides from multiple perspectives. There are, first and foremost, the families whose loved ones jumped from the bridge. Their world will never be the same. Then there are the witnesses—pedestrians and motorists, bridge workers and sailors on the bay. Many of them are as damaged by what they see as the families are by their grief. In addition, there are people who are stopped from jumping, a few individuals who survive the jump, the coroner who conducts the autopsies, the police officers who try to talk people down, the Coast Guard crews who retrieve the bodies of jumpers, Bridge District officials, mental health professionals, structural engineers and the producer of a controversial movie about Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Each one sees the problem differently, but the one thing they share is a desire for it to end.

So why do Golden Gate Bridge suicides continue? The simple answer is because the entity that has sole responsibility for managing the bridge and ensuring its safe use—the Golden Gate Bridge District—has never taken concrete steps to stop them. The longer answer has to do with stigma and misperceptions about suicide. Many people believe—mistakenly—that it’s impossible to prevent people from killing themselves if they want to. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 90 per cent of people who survive an attempt don’t go on to die by suicide. In one study of 515 people who were stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, researchers found that 94 per cent were still alive 25 years later or had died by means other than suicide. Only 6 per cent ended up taking their lives.

If three people died every month in cable car accidents in San Francisco, or a baseball fan fell over the upper-deck railing at AT&T Park every 10 days, or there was an intersection in the city that was the site of frequent and fatal vehicle accidents, the problem would be fixed immediately. Public pressure would demand it. Yet people continue to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge in record numbers and no one—including the Golden Gate Bridge District—seem too concerned. The reasoning, in part, seems to be that it’s only a few dozen people per year who are dying, and many of them are marginalized by mental illness, so from a societal point of view the problem isn’t worth worrying about.

In 2008, Bridge District board members did approve adding a rigid, marine-grade, stainless steel net under the bridge. It was the first time in history that they voted in favor of a physical deterrent. The net will extend out on both sides to catch anyone who jumps, and be angled to make climbing out of it difficult, though not impossible (special equipment will used to retrieve anyone in the net). At the same time however, the bridge directors voted not to allow any revenues to be used to pay for the net, which they estimate will cost $50 million. As a result, the deaths continue.

In 2003 the Bridge District spent $5 million on a barrier separating bicyclists from motor vehicles. The reason for the barrier, according to officials, was “public safety.” Yet no bicyclist has ever been killed on the bridge. More recently the district approved $15 million to $20 million for a median separating north and south-bound vehicle traffic. The reason, again, is “public safety.” Yet there have been fewer than 40 traffic fatalities in the history of the bridge. By comparison, more than 1,600 people have died jumping from the bridge since it opened and the issue of public safety has never been raised.

One day steps will be taken so that suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge end, just like they have ended at other famous icons around the world. When that happens, the bridge will become a monument to compassion as well as beauty. Unfortunately, that day isn’t here yet.


About the Author:

John Bateson is the author of The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, published in 2012 by the University of California Press. He was executive director of a 24-hour crisis intervention and suicide prevention center in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 15 years, and helped draft the California Strategic Plan on Suicide Prevention.