This is the second entry of a two-part series on suicides and the Coronado Bridge. Read the first part Luminous Veil — was finally added to the bridge. No one has jumped from the 90-year-old structure since.
Anti-suicide advocates in three West Coast cities hope they’ll follow in the footsteps of Birney, who died in 2007 and is remembered in a plaque on the Toronto bridge.
In San Francisco, officials are Sam Hodgson
According to a 1934 San Diego Union story, 40 people had fatally jumped at the Cabrillo Bridge since it opened in 1915. Suicidal people “were jumping off and landing on cars, landing on innocent people,” said Leavens, the county’s former suicide prevention chief.
By the early 1950s, city leaders had enough. Three days after a female college student jumped to her death in 1950, San Diego’s acting city manger ordered that a barrier be installed. The City Council also discussed installing a net to catch jumpers.
Fencing with inverted spikes now protects the section of the bridge over Highway 163. People still kill themselves there, however. Four have jumped to their deaths from the bridge within the past decade.
(Fencing has not solved the suicide problem at another notable Southern California bridge — the Colorado Street Bridge across the Arroyo Seco gorge in Pasadena. City leaders voted in 1937 to erect a fence after 88 people died in jumps over 25 years. However, suicides there continue.)
At U.C. San Diego, four people jumped from the roof of the 11-story Tioga Hall in the 1970s and 1980s. The third suicide, in 1985, sparked media coverage as the victim’s mother called for a barrier. It was installed after another death in 1987.
No one has jumped over the barrier, according to a campus spokesman.
In at least two of the UCSD suicides, parents of the victims spoke up and talked to reporters. Not so for the relatives and friends of Coronado Bridge suicide victims.
In recent years, at least, they appear to have suffered in silence without seeking public attention.
That fact may be one reason why bridge suicides are little noticed by those who aren’t directly affected. In many cases, communities only take action regarding suicide when “you have a surviving family member who is willing to advocate and go public in their grief to do something about it,” said Berman, the association executive director.
Leavens put it this way in a 1985 newspaper interview: “I don’t think there really is going to be … pressure until a public figure or a person related to the county Board of Supervisors goes off the (Coronado) bridge.”
Any proposal to install a bridge on the Coronado Bridge would face criticism on grounds of effectiveness, cost and appearance.
Caltrans did consider a barrier in the 1980s at the behest of Leavens and others, although spokesman Edward Cartagena said no one still working at the agency recalls the details of the discussions.
Several years ago, Caltrans briefly discussed installing a net to catch jumpers, Cartagena recalled. But, he said, the idea went nowhere.
A barrier wouldn’t be physically impossible to build on the Coronado Bridge, said Henry Petroski, a bridge specialist and professor of civil engineering at Duke University.
“Technically, I don’t think there would be any severe technical barriers to doing so,” he said. “But you’d have to pay for it, and you’d have to accept that the bridge’s appearance could be changed.”
It’s true that a barrier could disrupt the stunning view that motorists can see if they’re brave enough to look over the bridge’s three-foot-tall rails. A fence could also make the bridge look less beautiful from afar.
Bill Adams, then a Coronado councilman, declared in 1986 that a barrier would “make the bridge look hideous and cause more traffic problems,” according to a newspaper story.
“Instead of making a quick jump, it will be a floor show,” he added, apparently meaning that jumpers would try to scale a barrier creating even more of a spectacle.
Then there’s the matter of money. The cost of a Coronado Bridge barrier is unclear, although an official estimated the cost at $7 million in 1985.
A barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge — which is 6,450 feet long compared to the Coronado Bridge’s 11,179 feet, or two miles — is estimated to cost as much as $25 million.
In Canada, the barrier at the Toronto bridge cost $3.7 million. But that bridge is just a third of a mile long.
There’s a cheaper and simpler suicide prevention strategy: Emergency phones with direct access to counselors.
Officials at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge near Tampa, Fla., a leading suicide magnet, installed hotline phones on the bridge in the late 1990s. In New York City, officials last year installed emergency phones on four bridges that cross the Hudson River. And in 2006, hotline phones appeared on Seattle’s Aurora Bridge.
There’s a difference, however. Some of the other bridges have shoulders where people can stand and make calls safely. The Coronado Bridge does not, making midspan emergency phones a potentially dangerous proposition: Someone talking on a phone could be hit by cars.
Now, a handful of small signs on the Coronado Bridge give passersby the toll-free phone number of a crisis line. But the only emergency phone for the public is at an operations building near the former toll booths on the Coronado side of the bridge.
The phone, which has a direct connection to suicide counselors, sits in an antique-looking black call box next to a small sign. It is easy for motorists zipping by on the roadway to miss.
According to Caltrans spokesman Cartagena, Caltrans removed emergency phones from the bridge itself in 1993. At that time, officials eliminated the bridge’s break-down lanes in order to install a system that allows a fifth lane of traffic to go east or west depending on the level of congestion.
Regular patrols are another option to reduce suicides from bridges. California Highway Patrol officers are based at the Coronado Bridge’s former toll plaza 24 hours a day, monitoring video feeds from eight or nine bridge cameras, said spokesman Brad Baehr. Since their job is to keep an eye on the video feeds, other officers typically respond to problems on the bridge, he said.
CHP officers are assigned to patrol the bridge and nearby portions of Interstate 5 for at least part of each day, he said.
Officials at Florida’s four-mile-long Sunshine Skyway Bridge turned to patrols in 1998 and began paying officers to patrol the bridge 24 hours a day.
Statistics show that the suicide rate remains fairly steady at the bridge despite the patrols. Still, Debra Harris, director of a Tampa suicide hotline, said the patrols allow officers to quickly arrive on the scene when someone appears to be suicidal. In the past, a response could take more than an hour.
“If 24-hour law enforcement patrols don’t stop people (from killing themselves), I’m not sure what would,” she said.
For now, the suicides at the Coronado continue. Then there are those uncounted depressed people who head to the bridge with death on their minds but don’t jump.
Cops or passersby convince them to stay away from the edge. Or they decide to keep driving instead of stopping. Or they turn around and walk in the other direction when they reach the end of the sidewalk at the bridge’s Coronado entrance.
Somehow, they find a barrier of their own — at least for a moment.
Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. He welcomes your feedback and stories. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org to contact him directly with your thoughts or ideas. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.
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