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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

The bridge's youngest victim was Marilyn DeMont, a blonde 5-year-old who stood on a girder just outside the bridge's railing in 1945. It almost seemed like a death game. Without a word, she looked at her father, who commanded her to jump. Then August DeMont, a 37-year-old San Francisco elevator installation foreman, gracefully dived after his daughter. A note in DeMont's car offered only, "I and my daughter have committed suicide."

Father and Son

Another unusual twist involved Charles S. Gallagher, credit manager for a large San Jose hardware firm. In 1954, Gallagher seemed to have the good life. He was a director of the San Jose Merchants Assn., drove a late-model car and lived in a new, expensive home.

However, returning from a two-week vacation, Gallagher learned that an audit begun before he left was still in progress. He told co-workers he was going out for coffee. He then drove his sedan north to the bridge and took his life.

Four days later, Gallagher's son, Charles S. Gallagher Jr., a 24-year-old premed student at UCLA, drove the same car to the bridge and leaped from almost the identical spot. In a short note, young Gallagher said: "I am sorry. . . . I want to keep dad company."

In recent years, deaths of prominent people have received more attention. When University of California General Counsel Donald L. Reidhaar leaped to his death in 1985, the story was widely covered, including the despair outlined in the 52-year-old attorney's suicide note.

By contrast, one weekend a year earlier, when Theadora Merez, 20, and James Mills, 49, plunged to their deaths in separate suicides, Reuters news service noted: "The news rates hardly a mention in the local press."

Experts say only about one-third of suicide victims leave notes. Perhaps the most puzzling, however, was the one left by 49-year-old John Thomas Doyle in November, 1954: "Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache."

In another strange episode, when David Cleveland's body was recovered in 1971, officials found $36 in his mouth.

There also have been a fair number of so-called "pseudocides," distraught people who attempt to take a less traumatic route. The first-known case involved Chris J. Christensen, a prominent jeweler who in 1948 had recently been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Apparently, he was unable to cope with pressures of public office.

Christensen, 47, no doubt raised some eyebrows in his era. He had been friendly with someone described as "a willowy young man almost too good-looking to be considered handsome," whom he introduced as his nephew. The young man was not a relative but rather a sailor Christensen met in a Los Angeles bar.

Christensen's coat was found tied to a painter's work box near the center of the bridge, with a note: "Loved Ones: My nerves are shot. Please forgive me. Chris."

Bible Salesman

Whether his loved ones forgave him is unknown. However, more than a year later, Christensen turned up selling Bibles in Houston, 40 pounds lighter and living in a shabby rooming house. He reportedly said campaign contributors asked him to do things he couldn't do. He considered himself a failure, and never returned to San Francisco.

No one really knows why the Golden Gate Bridge has become such a powerful symbol for those seeking an end to life. The neighboring Oakland Bay Bridge, built at roughly the same time, is reported to have had only 125 suicides. Interestingly, several Bay Area bridge victims made a point of driving over the Oakland Bay Bridge on their way to commit suicide on the Golden Gate.

Actually, the Golden Gate Bridge suicide rate has dropped somewhat in recent years. Random checks indicate 31 suicides in 1976, 24 in 1980, 18 in 1985 and 17 in 1986. However, despite measures such as installation of television monitors, constant patrols by bridge employes and the California Highway Patrol and closing the sidewalks to pedestrians between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., suicide attempts remain a constant problem.

The debate over how to prevent suicide has been raging for more than 40 years. In 1948, W. Keene Jackson, a Glendale merchandising broker, proposed installing charged wire similar to an electric pasture fence. His idea was rejected when officials decided the wire would be "a hazard to workmen."

Bridge directors have, over the years, come up with some novel ideas. In 1949, the district president thought there should be a law against suicide. His legislation was dropped after the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out in an editorial, "A person seriously bent on suicide is not going to be deterred by a law that, once he jumps, can never reach him."

In 1951, another director proposed posting signs, urging "Think Before You Leap."

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