Did you know that the Golden Gate Bridge is the second most popular place to commit suicide with over 1,500 total suicides and about one occurring every two weeks.
The Golden Gate Bridge is the second most common suicide site in the world (see List of suicide sites). The deck is about 245 feet (75 m) above the water. After a fall of four seconds, jumpers hit the water at around 75 mph or about 120 km/h. Most jumpers die from impact trauma. The few who survive the initial impact generally drown or die of hypothermia in the cold water.
Most suicidal jumps occur on the side facing the bay. The side facing the Pacific is closed to pedestrians.
An official suicide count is kept, sorted according to which of the bridge’s 128 lamp posts the jumper was nearest when he or she jumped. By 2005 this count exceeded 1,200 and new suicides were occurring about once every two weeks. For comparison, the reported second-most-popular place to commit suicide in the world, Aokigahara Forest in Japan, has a record of 78 bodies, found within the forest in 2002, with an average of 30 a year. There were 34 bridge-jump suicides in 2006 whose bodies were recovered, in addition to four jumps that were witnessed but whose bodies were never recovered, and several bodies recovered suspected to be from bridge jumps. The California Highway Patrol removed 70 apparently suicidal people from the bridge that year.
There is no accurate figure on the number of suicides or completed jumps since 1937, because many were not witnessed. People have been known to travel to San Francisco specifically to jump off the bridge, and may take a bus or cab to the site; police sometimes find abandoned rental cars in the parking lot. Currents beneath the bridge are strong and some jumpers have undoubtedly been washed out to sea without being seen. The water may be as cold as 47 °F (8 °C). Because of the difficulty of finding and recovering bodies compared to most bridges, the Golden Gate Bridge is suspected of being a favorable site for those who wish to fake a suicide.
The fatality rate of jumping is roughly 98%. As of 2006, only 26 people are known to have survived the jump. Those who do survive strike the water feet-first and at a slight angle, although individuals may still sustain broken bones or internal injuries. Only 4% of the small number of survivors have been able to walk again. One young woman, Sarah Rutledge Birnbaum, survived, but returned to jump again and died the second time. One young man survived a jump in 1979, swam to shore, and drove himself to a hospital. The impact cracked several of his vertebrae. On March 10, 2011, 17-year-old Luhe “Otter” Vilagomez from Windsor High School in Windsor, California, survived a jump from the bridge, breaking his tailbone and puncturing one lung, though he said his attempt was for “fun” and not suicide. The teen was helped to shore by Frederic Lecouturier, 55, who was surfing under the bridge when he saw Vilagomez jump. The California Highway Patrol (“CHP”) recommended the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office charge the student with misdemeanor trespassing (a charge which entails climbing any rail, cable, suspender rope, tower or superstructure not intended for public use), punishable by up to a year in county jail and/or a fine up to $10,000. Additionally, the CHP Marin Area recommended the teen undergo a medical/psychiatric evaluation by medical professionals.
Engineering professor Natalie Jeremijenko, as part of her Bureau of Inverse Technology art collective, created a “Despondency Index” by correlating the Dow Jones Industrial Average with the number of jumpers detected by “Suicide Boxes” containing motion-detecting cameras, which she claimed to have set up under the bridge. The boxes purportedly recorded 17 jumps in three months, far greater than the official count. The Whitney Museum, although questioning whether Jeremijenko’s suicide-detection technology actually existed, nevertheless included her project in its prestigious Whitney Biennial.
Various methods have been tried to reduce the number of suicides. The bridge is fitted with suicide hotline telephones and staff patrol the bridge in carts, looking for people who appear to be planning to jump. Ironworkers on the bridge also volunteer their time to prevent suicides by talking to or wrestling down suicidal people. The bridge is now closed to pedestrians at night. Cyclists are still permitted across at night, but can buzz themselves in and out through the remotely controlled security gates. Attempts to introduce a suicide barrier have been thwarted by engineering difficulties, high costs, and public opposition. One recurring proposal had been to build a barrier to replace or augment the low railing, a component of the bridge’s original architectural design. New barriers have eliminated suicides at other landmarks around the world, but were opposed for the Golden Gate Bridge for reasons of cost, aesthetics, and safety, as the load from a poorly designed barrier could significantly affect the bridge’s structural integrity during a strong windstorm.
Strong appeals for a suicide barrier, fence, or other preventive measures were raised again by a well-organized vocal minority of psychiatry professionals, suicide barrier consultants, and families of jumpers beginning in January 2005. These efforts were given momentum by two films dealing with the topic of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge. On January 14, 2005 the San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed by writer-director Jenni Olson calling for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. The letter was, in part, an excerpt from the script of her film The Joy of Life, which world-premiered the following week, on January 20, 2005, at the Sundance Film Festival. The day before, on January 19, 2005, the Chronicle broke the news that filmmaker Eric Steel had been shooting suicide leaps from the bridge during the calendar year of 2004 for his film The Bridge, which would be released in 2006. A week later, The Joy of Life world-premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and video copies of the film were circulated to members of the Bridge District board of directors with the help of the Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California.
In the fall of 2005 the San Francisco Chronicle published a seven-part series of articles, titled “Lethal Beauty”, focusing on the problem of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge and emphasizing that a solution was not only possible but desirable.
The 2006 release of The Bridge exerted additional pressure on the Bridge District and created continued public awareness. Filmmaker Eric Steel and his production crew spent the year of 2004 filming the bridge from several vantage points, in order to film actual suicide jumps. The film caught 23 jumps, most notably that of Gene Sprague as well as a handful of thwarted attempts. The film also contained interviews with surviving family members of those who jumped; interviews with witnesses; and, in one segment, an interview with Kevin Hines who, as a 19-year-old in 2000, survived a suicide plunge from the span and is now a vocal advocate for some type of bridge barrier or net to prevent such incidents from occurring.
On October 10, 2008 the Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors voted 14 to 1 to install a plastic-covered stainless-steel net below the bridge as a suicide deterrent. The net will extend 20 feet (6 m) on either side of the bridge and is expected to cost $40–50 million to complete. However, lack of funding could delay the net’s deployment.
Kevin Briggs, a highway patrolman on the bridge, is credited for saving hundreds of lives of would-be jumpers by talking to them before they are able to take the plunge. Despite past suicides, Briggs and others in his department estimate that they are able to save at least 80-90% of people bent on jumping thanks to cameras and their own dialogue.