Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jumpers: Suicides and the Golden Gate Bridge

Bro (my older brother) told me about some documentaries available on suicides by people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge over San Francisco Bay. I looked into it and found the topic fascinating but very sad. It impressed on me the realization that, no matter how rough you may have it at any point in time, there are people who have it worse and can't cope.

A few years ago I walked the footpath on the Golden Gate Bridge. I was nervous about the four foot high guard rail that separated me from a very long drop. The barrier seemed fragile and insubstantial. I peered over the side at the water 220 feet below and my guts turned to jelly. I wondered how anyone could have the courage to jump.

This week I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker magazine called "Jumpers." The article (by Tad Friend) describes "the fatal grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge," documenting the fact that about 24 souls per year depart this world by jumping off.

People come from all over just to jump off the bridge. They fly from out of state, take busses or trains or drive. One of the reasons is that the bridge is an easy way to arrange your own suicide. The rail on the bridge's walkway is only 4 feet high and easily scalable by most adults. Anyone who wants can walk the bridge, find an appropriate place, climb the rail and jump.

The Bridge is a cheap, sure and easy way to end one's life, but there is apparently a kind of fatal romance about it too. One's final view of this world is usually one of beauty.

Most jumpers do it on the side of the bridge facing the coast (the opposite side faces out to sea). The jumper can see Angel Island, Alacatraz Island, Treasure Island, and a Bay filled with sailboats and windsurfers. More people have committed suicide from the Bridge than anywhere else in the world.
There is a 32 inch beam just behind the barrier that is known as "the chord." Often jumpers stand there for a few moments to get up their nerve. Beyond the chord there is only space and, 220 feet below, the Pacific Ocean. At that distance a body can accelerate to about 80 miles per hour in free fall. The impact generally shatters the rib cage or spine, exploding bone fragments through the internal organs of the heart, spleen, liver and lungs. The Coast Guard usually recovers the bodies but not all of them. Some are swept out to sea and never recovered, becoming food for the crabs. According to the television documentary "The Bridge," 24 people jumped to their deaths in 2004, three of whose bodies were never recovered.
You can watch "The Bridge" on YouTube and it is touching and thought-provoking. Here's what the YouTube info says about it:
"The Bridge" is a 2006 documentary film by Eric Steel that tells the stories of a handful of individuals who committed suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge in 2004. The film was inspired by an article entitled "Jumpers," written by Tad Friend appearing in The New Yorker magazine in 2003.

The Bridge focuses on the large number of suicides that occur each year at the Golden Gate Bridge, capturing footage of the suicides and interviewing family members. Also interviewed are people who have attempted suicide at the bridge, witnesses of the suicides, and a jump survivor.

The movie was shot with multiple cameras pointed at a notorious suicide spot on the bridge during 2004. It captured 19 people as they took their final plunge, and then offers interviews with grieving families.
There are nine segments on YouTube, linked below in order to help you find them. I watched them all on Tuesday. I live near San Francisco and have been on the Golden Gate Bridge many times. The soft gray fog is cool and refreshing, the views spectacular. The film captures this and accentuates it with soft music, creating an almost meditative mood.
I was particularly touched by a young thirty-something man with long, flowing hair, black sunglasses, a black leather jacket and black pants. His name was Gene Sprague and he was from San Jose, California. The cameras caught him walking back and forth along the safety barrier for some 90 minutes. Occasionally he paused by the barrier and appeared to be looking at the horizon, no doubt thinking about what he had come to do. I felt myself wishing I could have been there to try and talk him out of it.
Finally, he climbs the barrier and stands on it, his back to the abyss. Then he gracefully falls backward off of the bridge (photo, above left), plunging downward. Another camera picks up the splash as he hits the Bay. The splash is violent, a tall geyser of white foam, followed by a lesser one seconds later. He does not reappear on the surface. He is dead. What a waste.
Another segment of the film ends better. A man, Richard Waters of Pittsburgh, was walking the bridge and spies a young woman who has climbed over the barrier and is sitting on the chord, quietly staring at the watery depths below. At first Waters takes photographs of her and then realizes she is about to kill herself. He reaches over the barrier, grabs the collar of her coat and hoists her head first back over the barrier. She fights so he sits on her chest, using his cell phone to dial 911. Rescue personnel arrive quickly on the scene to take the woman away for psychiatric evaluation.
I really admire private citizens who do heroic things on the spur of the moment. Richard Waters is a hero in my book.
I do hope that anyone reading this, who is depressed or in psychic pain, gets help because a lot of people do care about you, whether you know it or not. Don't go over the Bridge. Death is permanent and irrevocable. Once you step off into space there is no changing your mind. Be a survivor, not a victim.

Someone did a study and discovered that, of the hundreds who have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, 28 have survived. All of them have said, that once they reached free fall, the first thing in their mind was "Oh God, I don't want to die." See an example of one of these survivors here.
Here are the links to the YouTube videos of "The Bridge":
Other links:
Related article from the U.K. Guardian, "Get Your Suicides Here Folks."
Related article from the U.K. Times Online, "The Bridge of Broken Dreams."
Related article from the U.K. Independent, "Bridge to Nowhere."
Suicide Prevention: If you are contemplating taking your own life, seek help.


Curmudgeon said...

"Most jumpers do it on the side of the bridge facing the coast (the opposite side faces out to sea)."

This is because the Ocean side is reserved for bicyclists only, and the Bay side is for foot pedestrians (although I have seen walking bicyclists on the Bay side too). Any potential jumper using the bicyclist Ocean side is immediately suspect and may be stopped before getting out far enough to jump.

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