An Historic Day For Suicide Prevention: Plan Approved To Build Safety Nets At The Golden Gate Bridge

27 Jun

Golden Gate Bridge

The images play in high definition in my mind every day. It is November 9th, 2010, and Jeff gets in his car to drive twenty minutes to the Bear Mountain Bridge, where he will take one final deep breath before jumping. He drives across to the Rockland County side of the bridge and parks his car on the right shoulder. He stays in the car for a minute to pump himself up to do this, because he knows full well that if he hesitates for even a second, the opportunity will be lost, and he will not go through with it. Though It was a temporary wave of hopelessness that got him to this point on this day, he wasn’t going to turn back now. He places his cell phone on top of the final notes resting on the passenger’s seat, does his cross, and bolts from the car. He starts to jog toward the edge of the bridge, preparing to leap when he gets there.

But when Jeff gets within six feet of the edge, he looks over the rail and stops in his tracks. Holy shit, what the hell is that? Jeff is stunned to see a stainless steel net hanging about twenty feet below and extending outward twenty feet from the side of the bridge. He can’t possibly jump far enough outward to get past the net, which extends the entire length of the bridge. Now what? He sprints across to the other side. Same thing. Another net. “I better get the hell out of here before the cops pick me up”, Jeff says to himself, and he sprints back to his car and hightails it back to Chappaqua. As he drives home, he starts to feel relief. “Shit, that was close. Watching the Knicks game with Dad tonight isn’t looking so bad after all”, he thinks to himself.

This is a fantasy, but that is only because dozens of people who killed themselves by jumping from the Bear Mountain Bridge over the past decade– the most recent of which was an 81 year old man this past Father’s Day– have not convinced the authorities that barriers are necessary to stop the madness and save precious lives. Instead, they prefer useless hotline phones that people are supposed to pick up and make a call instead of jumping.

“Come on, Rich”, you say, “if he was hell bent on killing himself, he would have just driven another half hour over to the Tappan Zee Bridge and done it there.” But that’s precisely the point. Like the vast majority of suicide jumpers, Jeff was NOT hell bent on killing himself. What he did that day was an impulsive act driven by a temporary feeling of deep despair. Had a barrier like that been in place, Jeff’s plan would have been foiled, the feeling would have passed, and his flirtation with suicide would have been over for good. But don’t take my word for it. Instead listen to what Eve Meyer, head of San Francisco Suicide Prevention and a 25 year advocate for a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge, has to say about this:

“Scientific evidence is overwhelming that having a deterrent reduces suicide because it is so often an impulse feeling for many people. It’s been proven that if you stop someone, most won’t try again…This is about taking away the ability to act on that suicidal impulse.” (“Will San Francisco break the fall of the Golden Gate Bridge Jumpers”, Holly Bailey, Yahoo News, June 26, 2014)

Today, in an historic breakthrough for the cause of suicide prevention worldwide, the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District’s board of directors unanimously approved a plan calling for a stainless steel net—exactly the one I described in my fantasy above—to be built on either side of what is arguably the most breathtakingly beautiful bridge in the world.

After years of opposition from those worried more about aesthetics than about saving lives, and from those who argued that those who wanted to kill themselves would simply find another way, the Board could no longer ignore the irrefutable facts. Those facts were articulated clearly in Stephanie Smith’s June 27th article on entitled “’A view or a life?’: Golden Gate Bridge may get suicide barrier”. First she quotes Denis Mulligan, CEO and general manager of the transportation district, who said:

“Where nets have been erected as suicide barriers, they’ve proven to be 100% effective thus far. Suicidal people have stopped jumping at those locations.”

Those locations include the Clifton Suspension Bridge in England and the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, where, after barriers were installed, suicide rates went down dramatically.

But here is the clincher and the reason I know with certainty that Jeff would be alive today if the Bear Mountain Bridge had a similar barrier on November 9th, 2010. Smith writes:

“Very rarely do people who are stopped from jumping go on to commit suicide, according to a study published in 1978 by Richard Seiden, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. More than 90% of would-be jumpers who were stopped, according to the oft-cited study, were still alive decades later.”

Dear God.

More than 90% of would-be jumpers who were stopped were still alive decades later. That, my friends, is why Jeffrey Alexander Klein’s death was so utterly tragic. I have written numerous times that his death was driven by a TEMPORARY wave of despair and was completely unnecessary. He just needed to be stopped on that day, and there wasn’t anybody or anything there to stop him. The facts are indisputable.

The beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge belies the fact that it is the most used suicide spot in the United States, and second most in the world. Last year was its most tragic yet, as a record 46 people jumped to their deaths from the bridge. The Bridge Rail Foundation estimates that over 1,600 people have died after jumping from the Golden Gate since it opened in 1937.

Retired police officer Kevin Briggs, who used to patrol the bridge, which has been described as “majestic” and an “architectural wonder”, recalls in Smith’s article how the father of a young man who died after jumping from the Golden Gate said to him:

“A view or a life?, A view or a life?”

The answer is quite clear.

The implications of today’s landmark decision to build safety nets below the Golden Gate Bridge are nothing less than staggering. Now that the Board responsible for this iconic bridge has caved to the truth that safety nets save lives, there is not a bridge in the world that can avoid following suit. The Golden Gate is the second largest suspension bridge in the U.S., and the total cost of the safety nets to be built is estimated at $76 million. Thus, the cost to protect the thousands of shorter bridges in the world will pale in comparison.  How ironic it is that Barack Obama, the President that Jeff supported so passionately, is the man who two years ago signed into law a bill making barriers and safety nets eligible for federal funding.  The time is now to seize on the momentum created by today’s incredible decision.

It is painful to know that it is almost inevitable that more people will die jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge before construction of the nets is completed in 2018. Work on this project cannot begin or end soon enough. And it is both heartening and absolutely excruciating to know that one day, the Bear Mountain Bridge will also give in to the overwhelming pressure to build the barriers or safety nets that will eradicate the plague of suicide from that bridge forever.

Tomorrow, once again, the high def movie of Jeff’s final minutes will play in my tortured mind. But after what happened today on our left coast, I will at least know that what is a fantasy for me will someday soon be a reality for scores of other parents who will be spared from going through what our family has endured. Their young adult children may not have heard about the stainless steel nets hanging below the Golden Gate Bridge when they head there to end their lives in 2018. But when they get there and realize their plan has been foiled by brave and compassionate Board members who cared about them, they will almost certainly become part of the 90% who will be here to tell the tale decades from now.

Today, the Golden Gate. Tomorrow, the Bear Mountain and all the others.

Lives have been chosen over a view.

I can’t imagine, though, a more beautiful view than that of a bridge’s safety net, communicating to would-be jumpers through its very presence, that life is always worth living and that it’s time to just turn around and head home.

–Rich Klein


One Response to “An Historic Day For Suicide Prevention: Plan Approved To Build Safety Nets At The Golden Gate Bridge”

  1. Kathy contway October 1, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

    My Grandson Kyle Gamboa was one of those 46 last year ….condolences to you and yours on your great loss…your commentaries are very educational for the greater population….being a mental health professional for over 3 decades I have dealt with the horrific backlash that suicide creates for loved ones left behind….now I am dealing with it personally as well….families of loved ones lost off that bridge as well as legislators have struggled for over 5 decades to effect a barrier for the GGB….to no immediate avail….so when my Grandson died his parents have attended every bi-monthly meeting of the GGB District meetings…..building on the foundation of all the years of prior efforts….to get a barrier on that bridge! And finally that historic moment on June 27th 2014… 3 days after my Precious Grandsons 19th Birthday! I can’t even let my mind go to the place of ‘what ifs’….in re: to what my Grandson would be doing TODAY….had there been a barrier!! As you and many are aware….the deaths that have occurred due to the DEADLY STIGMA associated with mental illness and anything mental health related…..including suicide has to STOP….this has been for centuries..,and CONTINUES to be a # 1 PUBLIC HEA LTH PROBLEM..,,WAKE UP FOLKS!!!

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