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Golden Gate Bridge: Triumph, Tragedy : Suicide Rate Shadows the Span's 50th-Anniversary Celebration

May 22, 1987|JOAN LIBMAN | Libman is a San Francisco free-lance writer. and

SAN FRANCISCO — Kenneth Baldwin dressed in work clothes and pulled his blue, late-model pickup truck out of the driveway on a beautiful, sunny Wednesday morning. Baldwin was a determined man. He was on his way to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was Aug. 12, 1985. Baldwin, 28, parked on the south side of the bridge, entered the pedestrian walkway and strolled to the middle of the span. He tried not to look suspicious. Making sure there were no passers-by, and no boats in the bay below, Baldwin was ready. Twice he counted to 10, but lost his nerve. Finally, the third time, he vaulted over the handrail, his body facing the bridge.

Waking Up Swimming

It was a mistake. "From the instant I saw my hand leave the railing, I knew I wanted to live. I was terrified out of my skull," Baldwin said. After blacking out and plunging 220 feet at a rate of 75 m.p.h. into the frigid water below, he remembers waking up swimming. "I was screaming, 'Oh God, save me! Oh God, I want to live,' " he recalls.

Kenneth Baldwin is one of the more fortunate human beings one will encounter in a lifetime. Rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, he suffered a few broken ribs and a bruised lung. He is alive and well, living in Tracy, Calif., with his wife, Ellen, and 5-year-old daughter Catherine.

Sunday marks the 50th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge. Festivities and permanent exhibits will cost about $3.5 million. The 1.6-mile suspension bridge linking San Francisco with neighboring Marin County is world renowned as classic structural art and as a beautiful romantic gateway to the Pacific.

But the bridge has a darker side. Its graceful cables and mist-shrouded 500-foot towers have attracted more suicides than any other bridge in the United States. Since its completion in 1937, the California Highway Patrol has logged 831 confirmed suicides. In an additional 368 cases, witnesses observed people jumping but the bodies were apparently washed out to sea.

Baldwin is one of only 17 people known to have beaten the odds. And bridge officials estimate that for every death, at least five suicides are prevented by intervention.

As San Francisco braces for Sunday's dawn-to-dark celebration--including a two-hour bridge walk, a cavalcade of vintage autos, a maritime parade, an air show, a carnival, fireworks and entertainment--mental-health professionals are concerned about the bridge's continuing lore.

"For people depressed and impulsive, the Golden Gate Bridge is like having a loaded gun around the house. It's an available execution site, and it's an invitation to disaster," said Richard Seiden, an Oakland clinical psychologist who has studied bridge suicide.

"Everyone loves a party, but it would demonstrate a certain sort of maturity if San Francisco could celebrate the bridge and at the same time address the issue of suicide," said Charlotte Ross, director of the nearby San Mateo Suicide Prevention and Crisis Center.

Bridge officials don't like to talk about the subject. "As soon as you play up suicide (on the bridge), people who are mentally unstable will gravitate toward it," said Bruce Selby, marketing director for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

The bridge had been completed only three months when in August, 1937, Harold B. Wobber, a 47-year-old World War I veteran, boarded a bus from his home in Palo Alto and later began a leisurely stroll on the bridge with a fellow passenger, a tourist from Connecticut.

Suddenly, Wobber told his new acquaintance, "This is where I get off. I'm going to jump," and started climbing the rail. Despite the companion's effort to grab his belt, Wobber leaped over the side. News accounts described him as "a victim of shell shock" who had been under treatment.

His death no doubt stunned Joseph B. Strauss, the bridge's chief engineer. Interviewed in 1936, Strauss had pronounced the bridge "practically suicide proof." Citing the intricate telephone and control system, Strauss said " . . . anyone acting suspiciously would immediately be surrounded," adding that "suicide from the bridge is neither possible or probable."

Story After Story

At the San Francisco Public Library, an old wooden card file cataloguing newspaper clippings is a testimonial to Strauss' miscalculation. Headlines offer dramatic clues, such as "Helpless Cop Watches Death Jump"; "Bridge Leap Ends Sad Love Story"; "Unemployed Man Jumps" and "Suicide Over Wife's Suit for Divorce."

The stories allude to troubled romances, family squabbles, emotional disturbances, financial problems and ill health that literally sent distraught victims over the edge. Jumpers included attorneys, homemakers, soldiers, socialites, mail carriers, students and businessmen. In his 1965 book, "Golden Gate: Biography of a Bridge," Allen Brown noted some of the tragic details.

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