It’s been 71 years since Harold Wobber (a World War I veteran who had been declared non compos mentis and was under treatment at the VA Hospital in Palo Alto) made front-page news as the first known Golden Gate Bridge suicide.
More than 1300 names have been added to the roster of known jumpers in the ensuing years (while hundreds of others remain uncounted).
Doing the math it’s easy to harden your heart and decide this figure is not that bad over the course of so much time. But here’s the thing: All those deaths? Were preventable.
And the 71 year-old problem of serial suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most egregious, and systematically neglected, basic public safety issues of the 20th (and now 21st) Century.
Interestingly, the reason that individual Golden Gate Bridge suicides are no longer front page news is because of a news reporting policy that determined that covering such suicides did more harm than good, by encouraging potential copycats. At the beginning of 2008 (as he does every January), Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes officially announced the Golden Gate Bridge suicide count for 2007 — there were 35 Bridge suicides in that calendar year. If the stories of these jumpers were being reported in the San Francisco Chronicle you would be seeing the gruesome details a few times each month (heartbreaking stories of vulnerable individuals: husbands, wives, parents, children —the rate of teen suicides at the Bridge is particularly alarming).
If random drownings were happening in your backyard swimming pool at the rate of three people each month? The city would make you put up a fence. In fact, the city would not let you have that swimming pool until you erected a fence in the first place (it’s a basic public safety ordinance in every municipality across the country).
The idea that a barrier will ruin the view? Oh, please! The idea that people will just kill themselves in some other way? There are numerous studies that disprove this theory. The idea that the $50 million it would cost to build a barrier should be spent on other forms of mental health services? Let’s find that money too, but there are many potential sources for THIS money. The idea that the rail should remain as it is just because that is the way it has always been? Every other public structure with the same problem has halted suicides by erecting a barrier. The idea that it is not the responsibility of our public agencies to protect the public safety? Um, sorry but it is.
As early as February 1939 (after the Bridge’s 11th jumper), the California Highway Patrol challenged the Golden Gate Bridge District Board of Directors to find a solution to the problem. In a San Francisco Call article at the time, a CHP officer presciently declared:
“Hardly two years old, the span gives promise of becoming a Mecca for despondent persons seeking self-destruction.”
Seventy-one years and 1300 (or so) self-destructions later it is not too late for the Bridge District to demonstrate their leadership— and listen to the mountains of evidence, logic and conscience that point toward the inevitable erection of a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge.
As Bridge District Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss once so eloquently put it (when faced with his own even more daunting challenge of bridging the Golden Gate):
“Our world of today . . . revolves completely around things which at one time couldn't be done because they were supposedly beyond the limits of human endeavor. Don't be afraid to dream!”
Please remember Harold Wobber today by letting the Bridge District know you care about public safety. They are officially seeking public comments now until August 25th on the five possible barrier designs under consideration. Best place to actually see the barrier designs is right HERE.
And then go make your comments HERE.
If you want to get more involved in the long, steady battle for a solution to end suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge please visit the Bridge Rail Foundation website where you can learn more, make a tax-deductible donation, or sign up for the newsletter.
You can also learn quite a bit more by reading the text of my research on the history of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge, which is right HERE (this is excerpted from the script of my film, The Joy of Life).