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Renewed focus on a bridge's deadly allure

After working to limit coverage of Golden Gate suicides, an official thinks publicity might save lives.

July 31, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — For decades, Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes preached against publicizing the grim frequency of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.

He claimed that media tallies of the deaths created a circus atmosphere and even encouraged some people to jump. His campaign came to fruition in 1995, when Bay Area newspapers and TV stations agreed to stop treating the untimely deaths as news.

But on Monday, the 65-year-old veteran medical examiner defied his own conventional wisdom: He released a 10-year study of bridge suicides he said was designed to call attention to the problem and shed insight into some of the more than 1,300 people who have jumped to their deaths since the span opened in 1937.

He also wants officials to erect a suicide barrier to prevent future deaths.

"I'm tired of the carnage," he said. "The public needs to know these needless deaths continue at an alarming rate."

For the first half of 2007, the bridge was the site of an average of one suicide a week, a significant jump from the previous year, although the rate slowed inexplicably during July, Holmes said. Last year, 34 people jumped to their deaths. The toll so far this year is 23.

Anti-suicide activists say Holmes' study shattered one myth: that many people travel long distances to kill themselves on the Golden Gate Bridge because of its iconic status. Northern California residents accounted for more than 92% of the last decade's suicide jumps, the statistics show.

Male jumpers outnumbered women almost three to one. The average age of the suicide victims was 42. The oldest jumper was 84, the youngest 14.

The study includes 200 suicide cases handled by Marin County officials, which investigates 95% of bridge suicide deaths. The rest are handled by neighboring counties.

Holmes released the study to mark the 70th anniversary of the bridge's first suicide. On Aug. 7, 1937, World War I veteran Harold Wobber was receiving psychiatric treatment at the veterans hospital in Palo Alto when he cut short a walk on the bridge with a friend with the chilling last words: "This is as far as I go."

Activists argue that a bridge barrier would significantly reduce the number of suicide deaths. This year, Holmes helped found the Bridge Rail Foundation, composed of psychiatrists and families of bridge jumpers, to pressure officials to erect a barrier, even at the expense of bridge aesthetics.

Along the pedestrian walkway visited by millions of tourists each year, only a 4-foot-high railing separates visitors from the turbulent bay waters below.

"I believe a higher railing would stop a lot of the suicide attempts," Holmes said. "A lot of people go to the bridge really in the moment, rather than carrying through any well-thought-out effort to end their lives. Of course, you're not going to stop all of them. I'm not that idealistic."

Bridge officials have completed the first phase of a two-part feasibility study on erecting a suicide barrier -- either by adding to or replacing the current railing or adding a horizontal net. "One thing we learned is that there is a workable solution," said Mary Currie, a spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge. A plan may be ready for public input by as early as this fall, she added.

Holmes, who has been medical examiner since 1998, joined the office in the 1970s. Conducting autopsies of bridge jumpers, he handled bodies so devastated that they were unrecognizable.

The fall from the bridge lasts four seconds and is comparable to a jump off a 25-story building, researchers say. At impact, the body is traveling 75 mph. Ribs and vertebrae shatter, puncturing lungs and other organs.

With each death, Holmes faced another thankless task: notifying families. "Making notification is the most horrible thing we do," he said. "We change somebody's life forever. We're going to ruin some part of it."

Decades ago, Holmes and others criticized the media's reporting of bridge suicides. In 1973, when the tally neared 500, people competed for the notoriety.

"It was one calamitous day," Holmes recalled. "One guy wore a T-shirt that read 'I'm No. 500,' " he said. "They stopped him and others. But one made it."

In 1995, the local media again marked off the jumps, counting as each plunge brought the total closer to 1,000. A disc jockey promised a case of Snapple to the family of the 1,000th victim, and local lumberyard workers formed the "Golden Gate Leapers Assn.," wagering on when the next jump would be, Holmes said.

Finally, at jump 997, the California Highway Patrol halted its official count as mental health experts educated the public on the trauma suffered by jumpers.

At the time, Holmes considered the CHP's decision a personal victory. Now he's changed his mind: He's taking a public stand on an issue that for so many years has given him private horror.

"The bridge folks don't like it," he said of the study. "They say I'm ruining the reputation of their bridge. But it's not me. It's the high number of suicides."

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