SAN FRANCISCO — Tourists who lean against the wind as they cross the Golden Gate Bridge may miss the slow-moving woman without a purse or the solo man without a camera or running shoes.
Last year was a record: Forty-six people plunged to their deaths from the majestic orange bridge. Bridge workers stopped 118 others. That is a suicide or an attempt almost every other day at what is the most popular suicide spot in the nation, and among the most popular in the world.
Unlike the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Golden Gate lacks a suicide barrier.
For 60 years, the directors of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, reflecting the live-and-let-live ethos that animates this city, never agreed to build a barrier. Now, with the numbers of suicides rising — the country has more annually than traffic fatalities — and the ages of those jumping here declining, they are moving forward.
As early as late May, the directors are expected to reverse longstanding policy and vote in favor of using toll money in addition to federal and state funds for a suicide barrier. Tolls pay for bridge maintenance and subsidize bus and ferry services.
The plan calls for a $66 million stainless-steel net system 20 feet below the sidewalk. Over the years, much concern has been expressed about marring the bridge’s beauty; the barrier will be invisible from most angles. Many critics continue to assert that suicidal people will always find another way. Experts who have appeared before the board explained that the suicidal impulse is typically fleeting.
Denis J. Mulligan, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge district who has championed the barrier, recognizes the public’s ambivalence.
“Some of my friends say, ‘It’s great,’ ” Mulligan said. “Others say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ”
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said, “A lot of liberal people are not educated around this issue.” They support affirmative action and gay rights, he said, but when he mentions a suicide barrier, they say, “What? But I love the bridge.” Ammiano, angered that the bridge board on which he once served has moved so slowly as people continue to die, called the bridge “a public health hazard.”
Eve R. Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, said the popular argument was based on ignorance. “Scientific evidence says a barrier reduces suicides, because thoughts of suicide are transient,” she said. For years, she said, when she raised the issue of a barrier before the board, she was shunned.
Dr. Mel Blaustein, medical director of psychiatry at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco and an early proponent of a barrier, said, “Young people think the bridge is a perfect place to go.”
People see jumping off the bridge as an easy way to die, he said. “There is a misconception that it’s painless.”
Those who jump plummet 220 feet and typically suffer rib collapse on impact, lacerating lungs and other internal organs, said Ken Holmes, the retired Marin County coroner who saw so many bodies of bridge suicides that he became a major crusader for a barrier. He said they died of internal bleeding or drowning.
Blaustein said, “The most common myth to explode is that people will go elsewhere.”
‘Young people think the bridge is a perfect place to go.’
In a 1978 study, “Where Are They Now?” Richard H. Seiden, a former professor at the University of California Berkeley, School of Public Health, looked at the question of whether someone prevented from committing suicide in one place would go somewhere else. He studied people who had attempted suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge from 1937 to 1971 and found that more than 90 percent were still alive in 1978.
Mulligan says he believes that the board “has become more informed” and that the stories parents tell about the loss of their children have made a difference.
Every year, there are more parents. Suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge are trending younger.
Until recently, the largest group of Golden Gate Bridge suicides was ages 35 to 45, said Capt. Lisa Locati of the Golden Gate Bridge, who oversees bridge security. “Now, it’s 20- to 30-year-olds,” she said.
On Sept. 20, Kyle Gamboa, 18, of Fair Oaks, Calif., skipped school. The funny, confident, 5-foot-6 captain of his basketball team had repeatedly watched the trailer for “The Bridge,” a documentary about suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge. He got into his truck, stopped at McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin with bacon, and drove the 110 miles to the bridge.
He turned on his truck’s emergency lights, got out and jumped, yelling “Yahoo!” on the way down.
At the last board meeting, Kyle’s father, Manuel Gamboa Jr., took off his New York Giants baseball cap and positioned his son’s school picture to face board members as he had done many times before. “You already heard my story,” he said. Since November, Gamboa has driven to the Golden Gate Bridge district building, next to the bridge, to speak at every board meeting.
Gamboa still cannot read Kyle’s suicide note, which said: “I’m happy. I thought this was a good place to end.”
“He wouldn’t have died that day if there had been something there,” Gamboa said in an interview.
“The bridge is a sieve in the mental health world,” said Holmes, the retired Marin County coroner. “Anyone can fall through during a momentary crisis.”
In 1995, when the number of bridge suicides approached 1,000 and a radio disc jockey offered a case of Snapple to the family of the 1,000th jumper, Holmes, then assistant coroner, contacted the radio station and persuaded local newspapers to stop reporting totals because he did not want to encourage more suicides. He came to believe that reporting annual — but not total — suicide numbers was important.
When he retired and the Marin County coroner’s office quit tracking annual bridge suicides, Holmes and other members of the Bridge Rail Foundation, an advocacy group that publicizes annual bridge statistics and encourages a growing number of bereaved parents to tell their stories, did their own annual compilations. Since the bridge was built in 1937, they count 1,600 suicides.
During one 24-hour period last July, there were four, Locati said.
On the day in early March when a photographer for The New York Times was taking pictures, the body of a 30-year-old physician with bipolar disorder, the second suicide of the week, was removed. Five others were stopped that week, Locati said.
The bridge district trains patrol officers, painters, and ironworkers how to spot, engage, and restrain despondent people on the bridge. The district offers a support program for anyone affected by the suicides.
While motorists still yell, “Jump!” and “Go, dude!” at suicidal people, the political climate is shifting. “The Final Leap,” a scholarly book by John Bateson, published in 2012, was given to all board members. This month, local newspapers published editorials saying it was time to save lives.
“There is a momentum,” Mulligan said. “Everyone wants to make this happen.”
The keystone, he said, was a clause added to the 2012 federal transportation bill authorizing funds for the “installation of safety barriers and nets on bridges,” the work of Senator Barbara Boxer, who served on the bridge board, and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader.
Bereaved parents continue to tell their stories.
The 19-member bridge board, once all male, now has seven women. “That makes a difference,” said Judy Arnold, a board member. She hears the parents’ stories, she said, “And you think, ‘That could be my baby.’”
James C. Eddie, the board president who in 2008 was the sole vote against the net barrier, said in an interview that he now favored it and supported spending some toll money to pay for it. Eddie said he was touched by the family “that is reminding us every meeting that they lost their son.”