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A Date With Death on the Golden Gate Bridge

By Bob Nickas


The bridge seen from Lands End

San Francisco, August 7, 1937. A midsummer day like so many others—a blanket of fog above the bay, the air warming as the sun lazily filters through and burns it off, teasing brightness from the city's glittering new symbol, the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a Saturday, a day off for most, to relax, see friends or family, maybe picnic in the park, or, as many would choose to do, indulge in a new and thrilling pastime—walk across the bridge and take in the magnificent view. From one side, the city rose against the bay. From the other, the horizon of the Pacific spread out as far as the eye could see. Much more than a remarkable feat of engineering and a source of great pride for the city and for the country, the bridge was a gateway, named for the strait which it spanned, and as imposing and graceful an embodiment of the promise of California and the golden West as had ever been seen.

While there are beautiful bridges all over the world, the Golden Gate looms in the collective imagination, a stunning structure set within an equally magnificent landscape. In America, New York and the Atlantic can be thought to look back, forever bound to the customs of England, Europe, and the past. San Francisco and the Pacific, however, represent a greater unknown and a sense of freedom, connected to nature and Eastern thought, to the cycle of life and eternity. Traveling the country from east to west, one might end up in a San Francisco park named Land's End. Set high above a rocky coast, it offers an unparalleled view of the ocean and the Golden Gate from its wild, windswept cliffs. In 1937, against a backdrop of seismic world events—from murderous purges in the Soviet Union to the Spanish Civil War and Japan's invasion of China—the bridge would also symbolize the heights to which humans could aspire. Built in the midst of the Great Depression—a convulsive period of economic crisis, increasingly nationalistic aggression, and lingering resentments from the First World War that served as the ominous prelude to the second—it is one of the lasting achievements of its time. Unhealed wounds, of course, are not only the burden of the vanquished but of the victor, and even among the victorious there are those who remain deeply traumatized, are resigned to emotional defeat and forgotten. Do we memorialize those who are haunted in this way, or are there only memorials by default?     

On that summer day 75 years ago, a man named Harold Wobber was walking across the bridge. Along the way he encountered Dr. Louis Naylor, a college professor from Connecticut who had come to San Francisco on vacation. A conversation was struck up between the two men, and they continued on together. At about the midpoint of the bridge, Wobber came to a stop, took off his jacket and vest, and reportedly said, "This is where I get off." As he hopped the railing, Naylor attempted to take hold of his belt, but Wobber was able to break free and leapt from the bridge, its first recorded suicide. This is the man's claim to fame, such as it is, and though not much more is known about him, what little information is available is telling.


Under construction

A 47-year-old bargeman, Wobber was a World War I veteran who had been treated at a VA hospital in nearby Palo Alto, where he was diagnosed non compos mentis, or “not of sound mind.” At the time, doctors would have blamed Wobber’s suffering on shell shock. Now, of course, the severe—at times crippling—anxiety associated with the sort of psychological trauma experienced most frequently by war veterans is commonly referred to as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). How Wobber would have been treated in 1937, if at all, is a matter of speculation.

Mental health services in the 1920s and 30s may have improved as a direct result of returning World War I veterans who suffered from combat stress and nervous breakdown, but the practice of psychotherapy was still relatively primitive. Most of the significant medical literature was published after World War II, in the late 1940s and early 50s, and despite being studied, the various mental problems experienced by returning soldiers were not yet adequately treated. More than half a century later, the situation remains a point of contention and ongoing debate. In the 30s, although vets such as Wobber would have been treated compassionately, very little was known about an illness that was only recently classified as such.

It was not uncommon among former soldiers for depression to be accompanied by shame. On the battlefield, victims of shell shock in the First World War were often accused of cowardice, and in extreme situations it was suggested that, like deserters, they be shot on the spot. Among officers who suffered from battle fatigue, there were incidents of reckless behavior, daredevil attempts meant to prove their bravery like rushing into a line of fire with little regard for their own personal safety or that of their men.

One can't help but wonder about Harold Wobber, leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge neither in a moment of total desperation nor in a state of addled heroics. Rather, as his offhand remark—"This is where I get off"— suggests, he left this world almost as casually as someone hops from a bus when it arrives at their stop. This, in fact, is how many jumpers get there.

The bridge is a magnet for tourists, attracting about 10 million visitors to the city every year. In 2011, they contributed more than $8 billion dollars to San Francisco’s revenue. Those tourists must be efficiently delivered to the bridge's spectacular view, and despite recent budget cuts the service remains reliable. While one can drive to the Golden Gate, parking is extremely limited, and any number of jumpers take taxis or ride bikes to the bridge. On August 7, 1937, Wobber took the bus. As the bridge had only been open for three months, there was no system in place for intervention or rescue, and his body was never recovered.

It's a matter of chance, certainly, that the first suicide from the bridge was a World War I vet, and yet it lends tremendous resonance to an ongoing tragedy. One of the Golden Gate Bridge's great claims to fame, or its grim distinction, is that it is the most favored suicide location in the world. As of June 1, 2012, approximately 1,558 people had jumped from the bridge to their deaths. In order to arrive at an accurate total for today, the 75th anniversary of the first jump, we would have to factor in the three or four suicides that occur each month, or one every nine days.


The Final Leap

These numbers are no more than a macabre accounting of a tragedy that might have ended 50 years and many lives ago. And as the number of jumpers increases, so does the price of prevention. The original estimate for a suicide barrier in 1953 was $200,000. The current cost is in the $50 million range. While there have been many articles and editorials confronting the phenomenon of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge, only one book has ever been devoted to the subject, The Final Leap, published earlier this year by the University of California Press. While it's often difficult to judge a book by its cover, the image that graces The Final Leap shows the bridge at night, illuminated but wrapped in a misty shroud of fog. It appears to be the perfect setting for a film noir, equally romantic and tragic, with the Golden Gate bathed in its aura of fatal attraction. And the book's cover stock is velvety to the touch, connecting it to the gleaming black water below.One can't help but be reminded of Alfred Hitchock's film, Vertigo (1958), and James Stewart's rescue of Kim Novak, who plunges from the shore into the swirling waters of the bay. But the book's author, John Bateson, resists any urge to romanticize. The former director of the Bay Area's Contra Costa Crisis Center, which he led for 15 years, Bateson proceeds entirely from a position of advocacy, with a factual, levelheaded narrative meant to clearly and directly engage the questions that surround a highly emotional subject. Questions like why is the bridge so alluring and convenient? And why has almost nothing been done over many decades to address the problem?


Jimmy Stewart rescues Kim Novak in Vertigo

Early on in the book we're told "the odds of surviving a jump from the bridge are roughly the same as surviving a gunshot wound to your head."1We later learn of a woman "so intent on killing herself, and so worried about the pain if she survived the fall, that she carried a gun with her to the bridge and shot herself in the head on the way down." As we read on, and as the book leads inevitably to period sources, other lives are encountered, and we can't help but ask ourselves: Who were these people?

July 23, 1945

San Francisco Examiner, July 24, 1945

August DeMont went to the bridge with his five-year-old daughter, Marilyn, and told her to climb over the rail. "The wind blew through her blonde hair as she silently looked back at her father for instructions. He commanded her to jump. Then August DeMont, a 37-year-old elevator installation foreman from San Francisco, gracefully dived after his daughter." Here, Bateson is quoting from Allen Brown's 1965 book, Golden Gate: Biography of A Bridge, adding, "Marilyn DeMont wasn't officially murdered, but she might as well have been. She's considered the bridge's youngest suicide."

Sept. 27, 1954 / Oct. 1, 1954
"Four days after his father, Charles Gallagher, Sr., a successful businessman, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, his son [Charles Gallagher, Jr.] followed him. The younger Gallagher, 24, was a premed student at UCLA. He drove his father's car to the bridge and jumped from nearly the identical spot. His suicide note was short: "I am sorry… I want to keep Dad company." 4

Nov. 21, 1954
"John Thomas Doyle, 49, of San Francisco died leaving a suicide note that read, 'Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache.'" 5

Aug. 12, 1958
"Eilert Johnson, 70, of Oakland, held a hat on his head with both hands the whole way down as if he was afraid it would blow away." 6

July 23, 1964
"Leonard Jenkins, "… a 45-year-old airplane mechanic jumped with his four-year-old son." 7

Oct. 4, 1976
"When Diane Hansen, 30, of Sausalito jumped from the bridge, it was two weeks after her mother died and was cremated. As Hansen fell, narrowly missing a harbor Queen cruise ship filled with tourists, she held on to a ten-by-ten-inch white box that contained her mother's ashes." 8

Oct. 1, 1977
The first double suicide belongs to an uncle and his niece, who were said to be kissing each other “time after time” before they turned “their backs to the bay and, holding hands, tumbled backwards off the Golden Gate Bridge to their deaths.” 

Dec. 3, 1980
One bridge victim who does not appear in The Final Leap is Robert Byther, 27, because his body was unrecovered and his death was never officially recorded as a bridge suicide. Byther, a Navy veteran, had traveled from Virginia to San Francisco with the intent of protesting the election of Ronald Reagan by jumping from the Golden Gate. A short article about his jump appeared in the December 5 edition of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.


June 25, 1982, Robert Gotzmer 

Feb. 1, 1988
Sarah Birnbaum, 18, the only person who is known to have survived a jump from the bridge and returned, only to die on a second attempt. 

Jan. 28, 1993
The first known murder-suicide, a man going through a divorce threw his three-year-old daughter over the rail before jumping in after her. Earlier in the day the man had murdered his wife. 

Nov. 25, 1993
"Filomeno De La Cruz, 33, celebrated Thanksgiving with relatives… then walked his two-year-old son along the bridge. Around 5 PM, De La Cruz lifted the child from his stroller, grasped him in his arms and jumped over the guardrail. 'He was going through a divorce and custody fight,' a homicide inspector said at the time." 9

Apr. 24, 1998
Christine Bepp, 51, and Vanessa Chapman, 22, "two women … who did not know each other ended up at the same spot on the bridge at the same time with the same intention of killing themselves. They sat on the chord, on the other side of the railing, talking to each other. A Bridge Patrol officer noticed them and tried to talk them back to safety; instead, one woman stood up and stepped backward off the bridge. The other woman then followed her." 10

Sept. 15, 2005
Milton Van Sant, 85, the oldest person to jump from the bridge.

The story of a man who took his own life, attributed to Dr. Jerome Motto, a psychiatrist from UCSF, and dated only as being in the 1970s, is particularly haunting. "'The guy was in his 30s,' Motto related, 'lived alone. Pretty bare apartment. He'd written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, 'I'm going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I won't jump.'" 11

What all these people have in common is not that they ended their lives, but that they availed themselves of the Golden Gate Bridge in order to do so. In fact, among those who have advocated for a suicide barrier or net, there are some who refer to jumping from the bridge as "government-assisted suicide." One of the most resonant points raised in Bateson's book, as related by a number of people who either survived a jump, were deterred, or changed their minds, is how they had dismissed every other means of taking their lives. They only wanted to jump from the bridge. It would be "the Golden Gate Bridge or nothing."

The fact that many suicides get to the Golden Gate by first driving across the Oakland Bay Bridge, but don't jump there, seems to reinforce this point. One of the most bizarre cases of a suicide thwarted—that of a man who wanted to jump from a specific point on the bridge but ended up on the opposite side—is worth considering in this light. The police were able to apprehend him because he didn't want to risk running through the traffic moving quickly in both directions—he was afraid of getting hit by a car.12 This certainly gives lie to the belief that if someone is going to take his or her life there is no stopping them.

Perhaps the most incredible episode in the bridge's dark history, one that does not appear in Bateson's book, and understandably so, involves the Rev. Jim Jones. On Memorial Day in 1977, Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple, brought hundreds of his church members to a protest at the Golden Gate toll plaza, joining an equally large number of anti-suicide activists who were there to demand a safety barrier. One of the event's key speakers, Jones's comments would later register with a terrible foreboding:  

"Suicide is a symptom of an uncaring society... The suicide is the victim of conditions which we cannot tolerate, and... I guess that was Freudian because I meant to say, 'which he cannot tolerate,' which overwhelm him, for which there is no recourse... I have been in a suicidal mood myself today for perhaps the first time in my life, so I have personal empathy for what we are doing here today." 13    

Eighteen months later, having left the Bay area for the jungle of Guyana, Jones would lead more than 900 of his followers in what would be called the largest mass suicide of our time—even though most of these deaths were not made by personal choice.


Potential jumper

Although planning is often involved in Golden Gate Bridge suicides, there are also those for whom the act was purely impulsive. The first known survivor, for example, was a 22-year-old woman named Cornelia Van Ireland, who jumped in 1941. She was engaged to be married at the time and claimed neither to have been suicidal nor acted with any premeditation. She felt, like others after her, that she had simply blacked out.

"'I don't know what happened. I had an irresistible urge to jump, and suddenly I clambered over the railing and fell into space. I had no particular sensation going down. I know I prayed, but I had no feeling of pressure against me, no sensation of falling. I don't remember when I hit the water, but I know I was conscious. I was conscious every moment.' Doctors thought the big coat she was wearing aided her survival. It ballooned out like a parachute, slowing her descent. Weeks later she was released from the hospital, wearing heavy braces on both arms and a rigid cast on her back. Shortly thereafter she married her fiancée as planned." 14

By taking away a very opportune situation—the ease with which an individual, even an 85-year-old man, can, in an instant, vault a merely four-foot high railing and jump to his or her almost certain death—lives would be saved. In 1936, Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer for the bridge stated, "The Golden Gate Bridge is practically suicide proof. Suicide from the bridge is neither possible nor probable." 15 It may seem like a terrible boast today, the kind of bravado that was prevalent in an earlier age, but it's essential to know that the architect Irving Morrow changed the specifications for the bridge's railing, which design engineer Charles Ellis had originally set at 5 feet, 6 inches and with a difficult to climb pitch, to only four feet. Almost 60 years later in 1995, when the number of suicides was approaching 1,000, Jeff Stryker, a health policy analyst, wrote, "One Golden Gate Bridge survivor defined suicide as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But it was Edwin Shneidman, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, informally known as the dean of 'suicidology,' who best captured suicide's tragic logic. 'It is not a thing to do while one is not in one's best mind,' he said. 'Never kill yourself while you're suicidal.'" 16 Troubled individuals continue to avail themselves of this permanent solution to what are certainly serious but potentially fixable problems. And the Bridge District—the organization in charge of the Golden Gate—has a long history of thwarting those who have constructively sought an end to the bridge’s reputation as an easy way out.

As far back as 1953, when the issue of a suicide barrier was first considered, the Bridge District insisted that its design be 100 percent effective, a guarantee that no engineers could be expected to offer, and that successive board members demanded for more than a half century. This, rising costs, and adverse public opinion, effectively blocked a barrier or a net. But the effectiveness of a net should never have been in dispute.


Movable safety net

While it was under construction in the 1930s, a safety net placed below the bridge saved the lives of 19 construction workers, who became known as the "Halfway-to-Hell Club." Once the bridge was completed, the net was removed. The presence of suicide barriers in other landmark locations—the Empire State Building in New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, and the Prince Edward Viaduct in Toronto—has almost completely eliminated deaths in these locations with very little, if any, loss of tourist dollars. One of the more formidable stumbling blocks to a suicide barrier at the Golden Gate Bridge, particularly for San Franciscans, is that it would mar the beauty of the bridge and interfere with its unobstructed views. A net, however, would barely be visible from a distance and would, of course, be underneath the bridge.

Beyond the opposition on aesthetic grounds, one must also consider how societal taboos, and the moral and religious beliefs of the Bridge District’s board members in particular and Bay Area residents in general, color this discussion. In our culture, the avoidance of discussing suicide is second only to speaking about incest. For many, suicide is not only regarded as a mortal sin, but as a crime. There is also a pervasive unwillingness to look compassionately at the plight of the mentally ill, or even for the general public to acknowledge that clinical depression is an illness. Advocates for those who take their own lives argue that we should never refer to someone as having committed suicide, but “died by suicide,” since we would never refer to a person as having "committed cancer." Here we need to acknowledge that among those who have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, some must have been terminally ill. Many opponents of a safety structure on the bridge likely maintain a philosophical underpinning to their position, that individuals have the right to choose whether or not they remain on this Earth, that it is a matter of free will. And yet one would be hard pressed to bring an existential debate to bear in the face of treatable depression, mental illness, impulsive behavior, and a man who tells his five-year-old daughter to jump.

In addition to more than 1500 fatalities, there are those whose attempts are deterred, and in 2011 alone about 100 people were stopped from jumping. In weighing the dignity of a person's life and their death, aesthetic concerns for marring the beauty of a bridge—especially when they are for the most part unfounded—seem particularly selfish. Consider that for the next four seconds, which is about how long it takes a person who has leapt from the bridge to hit the water—the equivalent of a 25-story drop, at 75 miles per hour.

As Bateson graphically notes: "Upon impact the outer body stops but the internal organs keep going, tearing loose from their connections. Sternums, clavicles, and pelvises shatter. Aortas, livers, and spleens are lacerated. Skulls, ribs, and vertebra are fractured. … In many cases, jagged rib bones puncture the heart, lungs, or major arteries, causing the brain to shut down immediately for lack of oxygen-bearing blood." 17 And then consider that many jumpers survive the fall, only to experience this agony until they either drown because they are unable to swim, or die from hypothermia in the frigid waters of the bay. Leaping from the Golden Gate is by no means the painless, graceful exit that it is commonly assumed to be. Countless jumpers encounter much more than a four-foot railing and a four-second drop.


Seconds before a jump

In 2004, filmmaker Eric Steel made the controversial documentary, The Bridge (released two years later), deceiving authorities who thought he was simply photographing the beauty of the Golden Gate and its natural setting. Instead, he filmed for the entire year, intending to examine up-close and objectively the highly-charged site, having read "Jumpers," Tad Friend's 2003 New Yorker article. Steel shot almost 10,000 hours of footage at the bridge, recording the deaths of nearly two dozen people who jumped, and over 100 hours in the course of interviews with family and friends of victims. And although he and his crew were also instrumental in preventing the attempted suicides of about a half dozen persons, the film came under criticism and protest when it was publicly shown.

But the film also appears to have played a pivotal part in the Bridge District's 2008 decision to finally approve a steel safety net. True to form, their approval came with a crucial condition, one that has further delayed the net, a refusal to allow bridge tolls to help defray the $50 million price tag. With approximately 40 million vehicles crossing annually, a one-time $1 surcharge would raise most of the money in a single year. Unfortunately, with the Bridge District facing a multi-million dollar deficit, and commuter resistance to higher tolls, such a solution seems unlikely. And yet every year the cost goes up, as does the death toll, and four years later, there is still no net in place. In preparation for the 75th anniversary of the bridge, a website was created, goldengatebridge75.org, featuring a section for "Frequently asked questions about the bridge," one of which was, "What recent documentaries have been made about the Golden Gate Bridge?" Understandably, Eric Steel's film was not included.

In the spring of 2011, a year before the big 75th anniversary celebrations, not one, but two young people, and only a few weeks apart, remarkably survived falls from the Golden Gate. On March 10, a 17-year-old high school student on a field trip to San Francisco from Windsor, north of the city, leapt off the bridge and survived. He told a surfer who helped rescue him, and who he almost hit when he plunged into the water, that he hadn't meant to kill himself, but had done it "for kicks." The 55-year-old surfer, Frederic Lecouturier, said that the boy had grabbed onto his board in six- to eight-foot waves, trying to stay afloat, and that he helped paddle him to shore where he appeared to have only minor abrasions to his face. (He was later found to have a broken tailbone and a torn lung.) "He was lucky, that day there was a squall and a south wind that was blowing right under the bridge and the wind kind of held him up and broke his fall, I'm almost sure of it," Lecouturier said. "I saw him the last 30 feet. I saw him dropping. I couldn't believe he dropped off the bridge because he wasn't going that fast." 18 A little more than five weeks later, on April 17, a 16-year-old girl was rescued from the Bay after either jumping or falling from the bridge, although it was noted that she had plummeted from near to the span's mid-point, the location most favored by suicides.

These teenagers are among less than 40 people known to have survived a fall from the Golden Gate. Most people aren't so lucky, but maybe luck shouldn't even enter into the equation.


Coast Guard rescue at the bridge

A recent bill proposed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that would "allow local transportation agencies to redirect federal transportation money to build… suicide deterrents" was signed by President Obama just a month ago. And while it will not specifically fund a safety net for the Golden Gate Bridge, it makes possible the application for federal funds that can be directed to the project over the next two years. Whether the bill and the president will remain in place in 2014 is uncertain. But does anyone really want to see, 25 years from today, the centennial of the Golden Gate Bridge celebrated in the shadow of hundreds of additional deaths, of bodies unceremoniously plucked from the bay, or, to the private relief of some among us, conveniently swept out to sea?

Notes:
1.  John Bateson, The Final Leap, p. 9, University of California Press, 2012.
2.  Ibid, p. 82.
3.  Ibid, p. 84.
4.  Ibid, p. 75.
5.  Ibid, p. 81.
6.  Ibid.
7.  Ibid, p. 83.
8.  Ibid, p. 80.
9.  Edward Guthmann, "Lethal Beauty / The Allure: Beauty and an easy route to death have long made the Golden Gate Bridge a magnet for suicides," The San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 2005.
10.  Bateson, ibid, p. 81.
11.  Ibid, pp. 140-141.
12.  Ibid, p. 200.
13.  As quoted in "Suicides From the Bridge," http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=Suicides_from_the_Bridge
14.  Bateson, ibid, p. 102. Here he is quoting from Allen Brown, Golden Gate: Biography of a Bridge, Doubleday, 1965.
15.  Ibid, p. 23.
16. Jeff Stryker, "Ideas & Trends; An Awful Milestone for the Golden Gate Bridge," The New York Times, July 9, 1995.
17.  Bateson, ibid, p. 82.
18.  Eloise Harper, "Teen Girl Survives Fall From San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge," ABC News, San Francisco, April 18, 2011.

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