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ON CALIFORNIA

One Thousand (or So) and Counting . . .

June 21, 1995|PETER H. KING

SAN FRANCISCO — This is as far as I go.

--Last words of H.B. Wobber, spoken to a passerby moments before the 47-year-old bargeman became, on Aug. 8, 1937, the first known suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Absolutely no reason, except I have a toothache.

--Suicide note of John Thomas Doyle, who leaped from the bridge in 1954.

On a blue Monday in September, 1973, a 55-year-old socialite from the San Francisco Peninsula hoisted herself over the hip-high guardrail of the Golden Gate Bridge and took the four-second plunge to death in cold waters below. Two hours later, a young John Doe made the same departure. Their timing was unfortunate. These were the 498th and 499th known suicide leaps off the famous span, and they were little noted.

It would be different with No. 500. This would be history, preceded by a weird carnival. Anticipating the morbid milestone, television crews staked out the bridge. Bars took bets on when the plunge would occur. Fourteen would-be leapers were turned back by extra "death watch" patrols. One of these hopefuls had stenciled "500" on his shirt.

Longtime advocates of a suicide barrier for the bridge sought to turn the attention to their advantage, staging protests. Bridge officials, feeling the heat, paid lip service to the idea of erecting a higher rail, although one, off camera, suggested a more sporting alternative: "What we should do is put up a diving board [and] invite "ABC Wide World of Sports". . . . The best dive would win a free funeral."

Finally, on Oct. 9, 1973, the circus achieved its finale. A 26-year-old hospital technician named Stephen Hoag somehow passed through the gantlet. They found his body on the rocks below. His mother learned of her son's suicide that night on the news.

*

Today there still is no barrier on the bridge, although there are telephones designed to allow immediate access to suicide counselors. The telephones have never been used. The suicides have continued apace, and now, 22 years after No. 500, another milestone looms. The suicide count--as reported by Associated Press and the San Francisco Examiner--stands at 997.

Curiously, this time around the countdown is receiving little attention. Have we jackals of the Fourth Estate finally grown up? Answer: O.J. Has our society grown sick of cheap sensationalism, and does it now concern itself only with matters of great substance? Answer: O.J.

Rather, the quiet appears to be the product of a determined campaign by authorities to avoid a repeat of 1973. They have gone so far as to deny there ever was an official suicide count in the first place. "The numbers that were being given out in the past," said Officer G. R. Monge, who for years has delivered to the media precise updates of the tally, "were . . . not an accurate count. We didn't keep a tally."

Monge declared that the tally--if there was a tally--would show that No. 1,000 occurred "months ago," unnoticed. (Theoretically, this is true. The CHP, as official count keeper, has tracked only "known" suicides; many leapers slip away unseen, never counted, maybe never even missed.) Similarly, psychiatrists who have made careers commenting on the bridge phenomenon now aren't talking. "Why don't you write that No. 1,000 is not a big deal?" one scolded an Associated Press reporter.

*

This all is well-intended, no doubt, an effort to keep some tortured soul from making the nightly news the hard way. Nonetheless, avoiding a lurid circus does not erase the uneasy but central fact that, more or less, 1,000 people have managed to leap from a bridge initially sold as suicide-proof.

The Golden Gate once competed with the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building as the most prolific departure point for suicides. The others dropped from the race long ago, erecting barriers. Bridge officials tend to mumble when asked why they have not followed suit.

Sometimes they speak of aesthetics or local apathy toward leapers. Cost is mentioned, along with increased exposure to lawsuits should the barrier fail. The most prevalent argument, however, is that the suicide-minded simply would find the means elsewhere. Psychiatrists say this is false. The vast majority of those who were pulled away from the ledge--and the few who have survived the 220-foot drop--never attempted suicide again.

The suicidologists, as the researchers describe themselves, compare the bridge to a loaded gun kept permanently on the living room coffee table, a temptation in weak moments.

"Why," a forlorn 70-year-old once scribbled in a note, "do you make it so easy?"

Then he went over the handrail and was gone.

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