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While Suicides off Coronado Bridge Add Up, Lighting Project Raises Concerns It Could Get Worse

Prevention strategies remain elusive as lighting promises to boost bridge's profile. Last year, 18 people jumped to their deaths, the second-largest death toll ever.

Double-digit suicides from the San Diego-Coronado Bridge have become a yearly occurrence. Illustration by Ashley Lewis.

A $10 million project to dramatically light the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge is moving forward despite concern that it will boost the bridge’s profile as a place to commit suicide. The lighting project could go forward as early as next year, but local officials have said a suicide deterrent should be put in place before making the bridge even more iconic.

There are no current plans in place to combat double-digit annual suicides from the bridge. Eighteen people committed suicide there last year, the second-highest total ever.

The Coronado City Council in November declined to endorse the lighting project with members saying suicide prevention should come first. One suicide-prevention advocate said making the bridge more iconic is dangerous. The lighting “will draw more people to the bridge,” said Wayne Strickland, a retired Coronado firefighter who leads the Bridge Collaborative for Suicide Prevention. “They need to put up a fence or a net… and get it done before they even think of doing the lights. It’s already known as a suicide hotspot.”

But the Port of San Diego, which is helping to manage the lighting project, is not deterred. “It’s difficult to speculate what kind of impact such a project would have, if any” on suicides, said port spokeswoman Tanya Castaneda.

Caltrans, which has has nearly finished its analysis of suicide prevention strategies such as fences or nets, estimates it could take years and perhaps tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to put a deterrent in place. There is no movement toward other solutions, like increased patrols or suicide-hotline call boxes.

One of North America’s top suicide magnets is set to stay that way for the foreseeable future, although it is slated to be more dramatically lit.

Since 2011, Death Tolls Have Hit Double-Digits

Retired firefighter Strickland remembers working to save about half a dozen people who jumped from the bridge. “They’d bring them to the boat ramp, and I’d do CPR,” he recalled. “But I never saved any of them.”

His career began in 1967, two years before the bridge opened. By the time he retired in 1999, the toll of deaths from the 200-foot-tall bridge had neared 200. Now, the total is around 400; only a few people have survived the fall.

For most of the bridge’s history, it was unusual for the yearly suicide toll to reach double digits. That changed in 2011. The number of suicides reached 10 that year, and rose to a record high of 19 deaths in 2012.

The years since then each seen 13 or more deaths. The number of bridge suicides in 2017 was 18, according to statistics released to Voice of San Diego this month by the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office.

That’s the second-highest number in the bridge’s history, and more than half the number of suicides last year at the Golden Gate Bridge, where more than 1,500 people have jumped to their deaths.

Annual suicides from the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge escalated dramatically beginning in 2010 and have stayed persistently high ever since. Graphic by Ashley Lewis.

No one knows why bridge suicides have become more common at the Coronado Bridge. Patterns within the deadly statistics are elusive.

Last year’s suicide victims included 11 men and 7 women, aged 22-61. Nearly half were white, 4 were Hispanic, 2 were black and 2 were Chinese. Their jobs included musician, nurse, vet assistant, computer programmer and aesthetician. Some died from the impact of hitting the water; others survived the fall and drowned.

Lighting Project Takes Center Stage

As the number of deaths grew over the years, discussion of ways to prevent them did not. “For many decades, this issue received zero attention,” said Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey in an interview.

The $10 million lighting project, in the meantime, has had a high-profile since 2016 as it promised “an artist-designed, programmable LED lighting installation… which will create a unique aesthetic identity for the bridge and the bay after dark.”

The port approved $481,000 for the project’s design phase last year, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in August, and port commissioner Marshall Merrifield told potential donors that the privately funded project would “add to the waterfront and be an expression of hopes and dreams and celebrate what San Diego wants to accomplish.”

The Coronado City Council recently declined to support the lighting project, although it didn’t oppose it either. It “shouldn’t be done before the suicide barriers are installed,” said Councilwoman Carrie Downey, according to the Coronado Eagle & Journal, and Mayor Bailey said “we should prioritize the suicide deterrent over lighting the bridge.”

The lighting project was supposed to debut in time for the bridge’s 50th birthday in 2019, but it may be delayed until late 2020, Castaneda said. In regard to the bridge’s suicide problem, she said, “we stand ready to hear input from professionals about potential impacts and discuss ways to be part of the solution.”

No one knows whether dramatic lighting at night will draw more people to kill themselves at the bridge. However, officials did determine the times when 13 of last year’s 18 suicides occurred. Six of the victims jumped after dark.

Decades of Indifference as Toll Rose

The cost of suicides and suicide attempts has been great, especially in the small town of Coronado, where residents are seven times more likely to kill themselves from the bridge than other county residents.

“This is a high-priority issue for our community because we are affected every time a suicide occurs,” Mayor Bailey said. “Personally, I was friends with two people who ended their lives from the bridge, and most residents in our community know someone that has jumped as well.”

The suicide issue has other impacts beyond the victims and those who know them. Officers from the Coronado and San Diego police departments, the CHP and the Harbor Police must deal with the suicide problem too, whether they’re trying to talk would-be jumpers down from the ledge or removing bodies from the bay.

Last year, Coronado police officers received special training about how to calm crises on the bridge and deal with the trauma they may themselves experience.

“This issue has tremendous impact on traffic in our region as well,” Bailey said. “In 2016, the bridge was closed 35 times for attempted suicides, sometimes for hours. Installing suicide deterrents would save life and prevent future bridge closures.”

Caltrans Enters the Picture

Despite pleas from activists over the years, Caltrans — the state transportation agency that operates the bridge — didn’t budge on seeking a significant suicide deterrent. “They were telling me they didn’t have the funds,” Strickland said. “That was their story for quite a while.”

But then, in 2016, a suspected drunk driver flew off the bridge and landed on a gathering of people in Chicano Park, killing four. A local state lawmaker demanded action and pushed a bill to order a bridge safety study. The legislation didn’t pass, but Caltrans launched a $400,000 project to explore possible suicide deterrents. A report is due late next month.

Engineers, environmentalists, architects and public affairs personnel are working on the report, which will lay out options, said Caltrans spokeswoman Cathryne Bruce-Johnson. A future project will pare down the possibilities, she said.

In public meetings last year, Caltrans offered several possible physical deterrents as solutions. They’re all extremely expensive. A net under the bridge, for example, could cost $140 million.

This option is similar to the $211 million net project underway and scheduled to be finished by 2021 at the Golden Gate Bridge, which is by far the deadliest suicide magnet in North America. (The Coronado bridge may be in second place.) Several other bridges with suicide problems have put barriers into place.

Other options offered by Caltrans will also cost tens of millions, including a transparent panel barrier and a curved wire mesh barrier. The cheapest option, suggested by a Coronado resident and costing as little as $5 million, calls for sharp steel “thistle” spikes that would protrude along the walls of the bridge. They’re designed to puncture anyone who tries to climb over them.

There’s no way to know how long it will take to put a deterrent into place, the Caltrans spokeswoman said, and no funding has been set aside for one.

Other Deterrents Haven’t Caught on Here

Some research suggests that people drawn to kill themselves at iconic bridges don’t tend to simply go elsewhere if a deterrent gets in the way. In many cases, researchers believe, they choose not to commit suicide.

There are other suicide-prevention strategies. As construction begins on a net under the Golden Gate Bridge, for example, increased patrols may be preventing a higher number of suicides.

The Golden Gate Bridge is unique, however, because hundreds of pedestrians walk across it each day. No pedestrians are allowed on the Coronado Bridge, and those who jump must get out of stopped cars or walk onto the bridge.

CHP beefed up its staffing of the Coronado Bridge because it’s been considered a terrorist target since 9/11, and officers are based at an office on its west side at the former toll plaza. But even if patrols are greatly increased, an officer may be on the wrong side of the bridge when a suicidal person nears the edge, said Lt. Bud Wine, a CHP spokesman. “There’s not a quick or easy fix.”

Jon Froomin, Coronado’s police chief, said another idea came up during discussions with CalTrans: using readers to monitor the license plates of cars going over the bridge.

“It is not unusual for law enforcement to get ‘Be On The Lookouts’ for people who have made threats to jump from the bridge. In some cases, the alert includes a vehicle license plate,” he said. “This can be entered into the database for the license plate reader and provide an alert if the vehicle enters the bridge, passing a license plate reader. That would give law enforcement earlier notice that could mean the difference in these types of cases.”

Another proposal, suggested by an online petition that’s drawn about 150 signatures, calls for the installation of suicide-hotline callboxes on the bridge.

Currently, signs on the bridge direct drivers to the phone number of a suicide hotline. A USC professor who lives in Coronado reports that she tested a suicide hotline callbox at the base of the bridge a couple years ago and found that it didn’t work, and no one knew how long it had been inoperable.

The idea of new callboxes has not caught on. “I don’t think a phone is the answer,” said Strickland, noting that callboxes won’t prevent people from instantly jumping over the edge. “What’s really needed is a fence.”

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