In October 2003, writer Tad Friend published a long expose of the Golden Gate Bridge suicide problem in The New Yorker. As they had done in years past, the Bridge District ignored the story, but others did not.
One of those moved by The New Yorker article was a local psychiatrist, Mel Blaustien, M.D. He began a set of meetings with Bridge officials to advocate for a barrier. Another was filmmaker Eric Steel. He gathered a production crew and pointed his camera at the Bridge for a full year. The result was documentary, visual evidence of on-going death at the Golden Gate.
Word of Steel’s film — The Bridge — got out in early 2005. The Bridge District was outraged and embarrassed. Something had to be done, so a hearing was held. The following is a description of that hearing by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Joan Ryan.
“The board, seated around a vast, oblong table, listened all morning to individual stories of suicide. So many people showed up with photos of their loved ones that some had to wait in the hallway. One by one, they stood or sat at the end of the table and spoke, a funeral procession of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, boyfriends and girlfriends, teachers and classmates. Knowing the statistics—18-20 suicides a year from the bridge, around 1,300 since it opened—still doesn't prepare you for the weight of the grief in a room packed with people who have endured such pain and loss. You wonder how a person hearing these stories could ever view the bridge the same way again.”
The District’s hearings not only attracted local press, but were also covered by the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Journalists from the U.K. and Germany attended hearings, as did a T.V. crew from Japan. In the end, the district called for a set of studies to review preliminary designs for a suicide deterrent system, testing of these designs under the wind conditions common at the Golden Gate, and completion of the required environmental assessment. One caveat was attached to the plan—the District would allocate no funds to the effort.
But as 2005 progressed, things had slipped further beyond the Bridge District’s control.
A group of U.C. Berkeley Engineering students produced a set of scale model suicide barriers, complete with preliminary engineering calculations. Their work received extensive press coverage and was published in the influential Journal of Architectural Engineering.
The San Francisco Chronicle — whose storied columnists, cartoonists and editorial writers had long berated the Bridge District — took on the bridge suicide problem in a five-day, front-page feature series.
Families who had lost loved ones to the Bridge began to organize and push for a barrier. Many of them had spoken in great pain at the District’s hearing—and they wanted the problem resolved. The Bridge Rail Foundation was subsequently organized with its launch supported by the Althea Foundation.
Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes began publishing a yearly death toll at the bridge—and included data from other counties as well as those missing and presumed dead.
And Kevin Hines, one of the few individuals to survive a jump from the Bridge, brought his story to local and national media.
Within a year, San Francisco Supervisor and Golden Gate Bridge director Tom Ammiano had persuaded the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to release funds for the preliminary studies. Work got underway in 2006. Results from the wind tunnel tests were released in the summer of 2007, confirming what engineers had been saying since the 1950s—a properly designed railing or net system would not adversely effect the bridge. A Draft Environmental Impact statement was released in the summer of 2008. It included five preliminary designs—most quite similar to work done in the ‘70s and ‘90s. The one new element was a safety net set 20 feet below the deck surface. Research into suicide prevention safety systems had uncovered a net system in Bern, Switzerland that had proved quite successful. It not only stopped the suicides, it stopped the jumping altogether.
In October 2008, after extensive public hearings and still more press coverage, the Bridge District finally accepted the idea that some physical deterrent system was necessary. The board voted for the safety net proposal and designated it as the preferred option. Staff was instructed to complete the environmental assessment on that design. That review was completed, analyzed by CalTrans, and finally approved by the Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors on February 12, 2010.
In July of 2010 the Metropolitan Transportation Commission designated funds that allow the Bridge District to complete the design and engineering drawings for the proposed net. Phase 2 of the project was finally funded.
This legislation did not move in the US House, however thanks to Senator Barbara Boxer, we have been much more successful in the US Senate. She authored legislation that passed the Senate in the spring of 2012 which includes language that will allow needed funding. That legislation passed the House as well and was signed into law by President Obama in July of 2012.
Many families who have been through the loss of a loved one at the bridge are actively working now to secure funding to stop suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge. If you would like to help out—or just send along your encouragement — go to : "Email Us" below and send us a note.