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Golden Gate Bridge suicides increase

Merits of reporting numbers in dispute

Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Brigid Gaffikin, Bay City News Service

January 18, 2007

In a break from the usual practice of Bay Area law enforcement and government agencies, Marin County Coroner Kenneth Holmes yesterday released detailed information about suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2006.

At least 34 people died after jumping from the bridge last year, a number that could increase at the conclusions of ongoing investigations into other deaths that appeared to be Golden Gate Bridge suicides, Holmes said.

That total could have been much higher were it not for the efforts of the California Highway Patrol talking some 70 suicidal people out of jumping from the bridge, he said.

CHP Officer Mary Ziegenbein, a spokeswoman for the Marin County area, said the agency neither keeps an official count of suicides on the bridge nor reports numbers. The CHP also doesn't track trends in suicides, she said.

According to Holmes, more than 1,250 people have died after jumping from the bridge since it was constructed almost 70 years ago and only 26 people have survived jumping from the span.

Some 85 percent of bridge suicide victims the Marin County coroner's office received were people from the Bay Area, he said.

Some bodies wash ashore in other counties and officials there are responsible for determining the cause of manner of those deaths, he said.

Safety on the span is monitored by both the CHP and employees of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, bridge district spokeswoman Mary Currie said.

Currie said she's concerned about drawing attention to suicides and that media interest in the topic could contribute to increased suicides.

There were 622 suicides in the nine Bay Area counties in 2005, and 599 of those were not involving the Golden Gate Bridge, Currie said.

In 2005 there were 23 suicides from the bridge, and in 2004, 24, according to bridge district figures, which can differ slightly from those provided by the coroner's office, she said.

Bridge deaths received renewed attention last year with the news of a new study to fund research into options for a suicide barrier and the release of a documentary about suicides from the 4,200-foot-long span.

"The copycat phenomenon'' is real, Currie said. "The coroner himself would tell you the copycat phenomenon exists.''

Holmes was not available for comment.

Currie said the bridge saw a spike in suicides in May and in December last year.

In fact, suicides "were up dramatically in 2006, which to me and our organization directly reflects an increase in media coverage, due to the Eric Steel film'' and coverage of a new two-year study that is looking at a proposed suicide barrier on the bridge.

Steel's 2005 film "The Bridge'' includes footage of people jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2004 and interviews with those affected by suicides from the span. The film was shown in April at the San Francisco International Film Festival and was screened in theaters nationwide beginning in the fall of 2006.

Currie said that, like Holmes, the bridge district estimates some 70 to 80 percent of potential suicides are prevented. But while the success rate in preventing bridge deaths has to be underscored, she said, activity that appears to be linked to potential suicides has also increased.

"That activity rate ... both successful and unsuccessful, really spiked in 2006,'' Currie said.

The two-phase suicide barrier study started in mid-October and the first phase, which involves assessing a multitude of design variations for a barrier, is expected to be completed by early May, Currie said.

More than 100 variations, which include netting configurations, adding to existing railing and replacing railing, will be considered, she said.

Some people opposed to a suicide barrier have made objections on aesthetic grounds. But engineering considerations are also an important factor.

"Any adjustment we make out on the bridge has an impact on how the wind moves across the bridge,'' Currie explained.

"Every study starts out with throwing up a bunch of conceptual designs and everybody looks at it and says, 'That's really ugly,' or 'That costs too much,' so you don't get past that point,'' she said.

The current study, contracted to DMJM Harris Inc., is starting with looking at wind dynamics and will provide valuable information regarding the type of structure that can work, she said.

A second, environmental review phase of the study, which is running to budget and on time, will begin in May.

By its completion, the study will offer a solution that is acceptable from engineering, cultural and aesthetic perspectives, she said.

Currie said bridge district employees, from patrol officers to ironworkers to painters, will continue to report anyone who appears to be in danger.

"We don't hesitate ... if your instincts tell you something, you call,'' she said.

Copyright © 2007 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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