Golden Gate Bridge suicide barrier: $76m funding approved for 'safety net'

Bridge district's board of directors voted unanimously in favour of the funding for a steel suicide net

San Francisco

Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Empire State Building in New York, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is recognised worldwide. Yet the celebrated Art Deco span also enjoys a darker reputation, as the place that has more suicides than any other in the world. And campaigners say this is because it is the only major man-made landmark without a suicide- prevention barrier.

That dubious distinction is at last due to be eliminated, after the bridge’s board of directors voted on Friday in favour of funding a $76m (£45m) safety net, to be installed 20 feet beneath both sides of the bridge walkway. The project will take several years to complete and, for its supporters, it cannot come soon enough. In 2013, a record 46 people leapt to their deaths from the bridge; a further 118 were talked back from the brink.

Captain Lisa Locati, who is in charge of security at the bridge, says that there have been 78 attempted suicides so far in 2014 and 18 suicides, most recently last Tuesday. The rising numbers reflect a similar trend across the US, where more people now kill themselves each year than die in road traffic accidents. Among those who have recently taken their own lives at the bridge was Sean Moylan, the 27-year-old grandson of John Moylan, a member of the bridge board and long-time supporter of the proposed deterrent.

An artist's impression shows the proposed netting An artist's impression shows the proposed netting

The funding for the safety net will come from sources including the federal and state governments, but $20m of the total will be come from the bridge’s own toll dollars.

Close to two miles long and more than 220 feet above the water of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge recorded its first suicide three months after opening in 1937.

Many of those who come to jump do so because they believe it is a quick, clean and effective means of committing suicide. Only 32 people are known to have leapt from the bridge and survived.

During a news conference before the vote, one of the few people who had survived a suicide attempt off the bridge rejected the argument that those who were suicidal would find another way if safety nets were installed. Kevin Hines, 32, said he felt “instant regret” when he jumped.

Until now, Captain Locati has been responsible for suicide prevention at the bridge. Her 31 uniformed officers and civilian staff, including ironworkers and painters, are all given regular training in how to identify, approach and engage potentially suicidal people.

Crisis counselling is offered to people thinking of jumping Crisis counselling is offered to people thinking of jumping

“The hardest part of our job is to start a conversation with someone who has [suicide] in mind,” Captain Locati told The Independent on Sunday. “They become very focused, very closed.”

Critics of the safety net argued that it would cost too much, be ineffective, as other means would be found, and damage the bridge’s famed aesthetics.

For the victims’ families, the prominence of the bridge in the landscape and in the public imagination  makes their grief that much more difficult to navigate.

John Bateson, author of The Final Leap, a 2012 book about the incidence of suicide at the bridge, has observed that some suicidal people will copy the actions of others when they read stories of their deaths.

Most jumpers suffer a grisly death, with massive internal injuries Most jumpers suffer a grisly death, with massive internal injuries

“The Golden Gate Bridge, by virtue of its prominence and beauty, has developed a greater allure,” he says. Of those who have survived a fall from the bridge,  “almost all said, as soon as they went over the side, they knew they wanted to live”.

He foresees a more positive image for the bridge: “The day it gets a barrier it will become a monument to compassion as well as to beauty.”

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