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The Golden Gate Bridge, which opened in 1937, with the San Francisco skyline in the background.

Eric Risberg • Associated Press,

Visitors stood under the Golden Gate Bridge in a photograph taken this month at the Fort Point National Historic Site.

Marcio Jose Sanchez • Associated Press,

Golden Gate Bridge likely to get suicide barrier

  • Article by: Carol Pogash
  • New York Times
  • March 26, 2014 - 7:23 PM

– Tourists who lean against the wind as they cross the Golden Gate Bridge may miss the slow-moving woman without a purse or the solo man without a camera or running shoes.

Last year was a record: Forty-six people plunged to their deaths from the majestic orange bridge. Bridge workers stopped 118 others. That is a suicide or an attempt almost every other day at what is the most popular suicide spot in the nation, and among the most popular in the world.

Unlike the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Golden Gate lacks a suicide barrier.

For 60 years, the directors of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, reflecting the live-and-let-live ethos that animates this city, never agreed to build a barrier. Now, with the numbers of suicides rising — the country has more annually than traffic fatalities — and the ages of those jumping here declining, they are moving forward.

As early as late May, the directors are expected to reverse long-standing policy and vote in favor of using toll money in addition to federal and state funds for a suicide barrier. Tolls pay for bridge maintenance and subsidize bus and ferry services.

Net system below sidewalk

The plan calls for a $66 million stainless-steel net system 20 feet below the sidewalk. Over the years, much concern has been expressed about marring the bridge’s beauty; the barrier will be invisible from most angles. Many critics continue to assert that suicidal people will always find another way. Experts who have appeared before the board explained that the suicidal impulse is typically fleeting.

Denis J. Mulligan, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge district who has championed the barrier, recognizes the public’s ambivalence.

“Some of my friends say, ‘It’s great,’ ” Mulligan said. “Others say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ”

State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said, “A lot of liberal people are not educated around this issue.” They support affirmative action and gay rights, he said, but when he mentions a suicide barrier, they say, “What? But I love the bridge.” Ammiano, angered that the bridge board on which he once served has moved so slowly as people continue to die, called the bridge “a public health hazard.”

Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, said the popular argument was based on ignorance. “Scientific evidence says a barrier reduces suicides, because thoughts of suicide are transient,” she said.

Issue was long shunned

For years, she said, when she raised the issue of a barrier before the board, she was shunned.

Dr. Mel Blaustein, medical director of psychiatry at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco and an early proponent of a barrier, said, “Young people think the bridge is a perfect place to go.”

People see jumping off the bridge as an easy way to die, he said. “There is a misconception that it’s painless.”

Those who jump plummet 220 feet, said Ken Holmes, the retired Marin County coroner who saw so many bodies of bridge suicides that he became a major crusader for a barrier. He said they died of internal bleeding or drowning.

Blaustein said, “The most common myth to explode is that people will go elsewhere.”

© 2014 Star Tribune