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Patrolling a Landmark for Troubled Souls

Suicide: The Golden Gate draws tourists for its sweeping views. But since it opened in 1937, it's also drawn many who have jumped. Now, security officers are on patrol in a bid to save some lives.

July 26, 1996|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — Sgt. Louis Garcia was zipping along about 7 mph in a three-wheeled gas scooter heading north on the pedestrian walkway on the bay side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Off to his right, Alcatraz sat sternly in the middle of the bay. Oakland and the Berkeley hills slumbered in the morning haze. Across six lanes of whooshing traffic to his left, the Pacific Ocean tilted off the edge of the Earth.

Ahead, a 3-foot-thick strand of cable sleeved in steel curved gently as it climbed 500 feet to the top of the structure's south tower, then sagged and rose again before finishing its 7,650-foot journey in Marin County. The bridge is an awesome place to work, even after 12 years, even on suicide patrol.

The man standing at the edge of the chest-high railing looked so small before the immensity of the tower. Perhaps that's how he felt in the world: singular and insignificant and wondering if anyone would notice if he just disappeared.

Or maybe he was just a tourist fascinated by the water 246 feet below, looking like a piece of olive-green vinyl, undulating slightly as it flowed into the bay. Dressed right for the weather, carrying a bag, probably a camera inside, Garcia thought.

Since April 1, the amiable sergeant and others from the bridge's 17-person security force have been patrolling the sidewalk in a campaign to challenge the bridge's notoriety as apparently the most popular place in the world to kill yourself.

In a tourist town of no few sights, the Golden Gate Bridge is the big draw, more popular than the cable cars. A giant red exclamation point on the end of the continent, the bridge is a marvel of engineering with an impressive array of statistics: It hangs 6,450 feet across water. Unraveled, its cables could encircle the Earth three times at the equator.

But there is also a dark fact that defies exactitude: The bridge is a magnet for troubled souls. People drive over the Bay Bridge so they can leap from the Golden Gate Bridge. They buy one-way tickets from the East Coast.

The east side of the bridge opened to pedestrians on May 27, 1937 (the west side is reserved for maintenance workers and bicyclists). Less than three months later an unknown person left a folded sealskin coat on the sidewalk and plunged over the side. For years mental health professionals have advocated installing some sort of fence to make it at least more difficult to go over the edge. Both the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower have barriers to stop jumpers.

Bridge officials commissioned a study of different barriers back in 1970, none of which proved practical. First, there is the relentless wind. The span already sways 27 feet in a bad breeze, of which there is plenty. A barrier, officials say, would increase wind resistance, pushing engineering tolerances past the point of safety.

Then there is the view, the gorgeous panorama of the bay that residents of the area take as a birthright. Obscuring the view would be about as popular as doubling the $3 toll. Instead, two years ago officials added a few words about crisis counseling to the signs on the bridge's 13 emergency phones and set up a direct connection to a suicide hotline. But pranksters seem more prone to pick up the phones than those contemplating the void.

On average one suicide a month is recorded; sometimes there are that many in a week. A few survive the fall. Officials stress that the vast majority of those who consider killing themselves don't. About two people a week are dissuaded from leaping by bridge workers--all of whom, from toll takers to painters, are given suicide prevention training.

But in the face of continuing criticism, the Golden Gate Bridge District, the regional authority that runs the span, decided to launch a suicide patrol during the daylight hours that the sidewalk is open. "The Golden Gate Bridge is not responsible for society," said Eve Meyer, the executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention. "They inherited a problem they never asked for. They tried ignoring it and it didn't work."

The problem, she said, is that society as a whole doesn't consider suicide a public health threat deserving of the same attention lavished on violent crime--even though more Americans kill themselves than kill others.

Moreover, those so emotionally roiled that they consider suicide are often viewed with scorn. "As a society we are very intolerant of emotional pain," she said. "We are very angry with people who kill themselves. I've been on the radio when people have phoned up and said, 'Why don't they just put up a diving board on the bridge?' "

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