A Dark Side to the Golden Gate Bridgeby J-Mirabelli
San Francisco is the city of peace and love, but don’t mess with their Golden Gate Bridge. They love it, they fantasize about it, newlyweds use it as a photo backdrop, some even tattoo it on their bodies. Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer, spent years battling for his vision of the bridge they said could not be built. It required a feat of engineering to cross the two-mile strait of strong tides and currents, strong winds and regular blinding fog. What was then the world’s longest suspension bridge opened to the public on May 27 1937, and the love affair began.
Every year visitors walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, marvelling at its height, its curves, its thrust from the city skyline right into the mountains on the other side. 2012 was a special year for the bridge. It turned 75. “We want the whole community celebrating,” says Mary Currie, head of public affairs for the bridge district. “We’ve got events and tributes the whole year long.”
The year saw a host of events on and across the Bridge including 1/2 marathons, bicycle events, relays, walks for charity, and memorial ceremonies.
But the bridge has a dark side. More people commit suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge than at any other site in the world. A fall from the bridge to the water will take about 4 seconds. Most jumpers die from impact on contact with the water. The few who survive the initial impact generally drown or die of hypothermia in the cold water. Most suicidal jumps occur on the side facing the bay mainly because the side facing the Pacific is closed to pedestrians.
There is no accurate figure on the number of suicides or completed jumps since 1937, because many were not witnessed. People have been known to travel to San Francisco specifically to jump off the bridge, and may take a bus or cab to the site; police sometimes find abandoned rental cars in the parking lot.
Very few people are known to have survived the jump. Those who do survive, strike the water feet-first and at a slight angle, although individuals may still sustain broken bones or internal injuries. One young woman, Sara Rutledge Birnbaum, survived, but returned one month later to jump again and was successful the second time. On March 10, 2011, 17 year-old Luhe “Otter” Vilagomez from Windsor High School in Windsor, California survived a jump from the bridge, breaking his tailbone and puncturing one lung. He has said that his attempt was for “fun” and not suicide. He was very lucky.
San Francisco has been proactive towards suicide prevention. The bridge is fitted with suicide hotline telephones, and staff patrol the bridge looking for people who appear to be planning to jump. Ironworkers on the bridge also volunteer their time to prevent suicides by talking or wrestling down suicidal people. The bridge is closed to pedestrians at night. Cyclists are still permitted across at night, but can buzz themselves in and out through the remotely controlled security gates. A plan to introduce a suicide barrier is slowly moving ahead.
The 2006 release of The Bridge put pressure on the Bridge administration to move ahead with the suicide barrier. Filmmaker Eric Steel and his production crew spent one year (2004) filming the bridge from several vantage points, in order to film actual suicide jumps. The film caught 23 jumps and Steel and his team saved six people from committing sicide, one person more than once.
The proximity of the Golden Gate Bridge to the San Andreas Fault places it at risk for a significant earthquake. As a result, a multi-million dollar program was initiated to improve the structure’s ability to withstand such an event with only minimal damage. Work began in April 2008 and is expected to conclude in 2013.
The Golden Gate Festival on May 27th, 2012, was the center point of the Bridge’s year-long 75th anniversary program. With the theme of “Bridging Us All,” the free event sought to honor this landmark in a way that reflects the ingenuity and creativity of the entire San Francisco Bay Area.