It was obvious last month that John Leber was troubled and unhappy. The 36-year-old District resident had recently lost his job, was deeply in debt and was struggling with a crippling depression that left him unable to do the simplest of tasks, according to a close companion.
But no one suspected he was suicidal -- until he jumped off the Calvert Street bridge during rush-hour on Thanksgiving Eve.
"I talked to him on the phone at 4:30 p.m., and his jump was reported at 6:05 p.m.," said Tom Murray, who said he and Leber had been lovers and roommates for seven years. "I really don't know what was going on in his mind."
Besides leaving family and friends to agonize and grieve, Leber's death on Nov. 27, followed by two other fatal jumps off the bridge Dec. 5 and 7, have once again given a tragic focus to a city controversy over how to stop the 125-foot-high limestone structure from becoming the Golden Gate of Washington.
In less than eight years, 37 persons, including eight this year alone, have jumped off the Calvert Street and Connecticut Avenue bridges over Rock Creek Park. Most of the suicides have occurred from the Calvert Street span, a towering, three-arch landmark known officially as the Duke Ellington Bridge.
The most recent series of suicides began barely two months after Mayor Marion Barry and City Council member Frank Smith Jr., whose Ward 1 district includes the bridges, halted construction of a special suicide-prevention fence that workers had started installing on the Calvert Street bridge in September.
Smith, who jogs over the bridge three times a week, said he did not realize the fence would be eight feet high when he gave his approval for it. Now he is pushing the city's Department of Public Works to hang a net under the bridge to catch any jumpers.
"It's unfortunate this bridge has become the site of first choice for suicides," Smith said. "But we don't want to deny millions of normal people the enjoyment of its scenic view."
Business leaders in the nearby Adams-Morgan neighborhood and many preservationists couldn't agree more. Most argue that a fence would be unsightly to motorists and pedestrians and would not stop those determined to kill themselves, even if they had to use other means.
But Benjamin J. Read and his wife, Anne, who have almost single-handedly campaigned for the suicide barriers since their daughter jumped off the bridge six years ago, said that lives are being lost while city officials debate esthetics.
"Dropping from a high place is the one sure form of suicide and takes no planning or equipment," said Read, under secretary of State during the Carter administration. "Therefore, it's particularly attractive to people who act on impulse."
A characteristic of severe depression, Read said, is the loss of flexibility of thought. The bridge is so notorious as a suicide site "that you're drawn to it -- especially young people who don't have enough life experience to know there's a tomorrow."
Leber, for instance, was ashamed of his financial troubles, according to Murray, and very upset when he was laid off along with others from his job at the Lutheran Social Services, where he had worked for eight years. And one of Leber's friends had committed suicide off the bridge four years ago.
Robert Reinhardt, 38, of Silver Spring and Michele Toler, 26, of Southwest Washington also died in falls from the bridge earlier this month. Both deaths, along with Leber's, have been ruled suicides by the D.C. medical examiner's office.
Read said he does not know whether his daughter, then 24, Leber or any of the others would have gone somewhere else to jump if the bridge fence had been up. "I do know that any delay buys time, and time can be a lifetime reprieve."
Apart from his concerns about suicide prevention, Read said the bridge barriers also could mean a reprieve for inebriated pedestrians and crime victims, some of whom he speculates have accidentally fallen or intentionally been pushed off the structure.
When Smith held a news conference at the bridge in September, demanding a halt to the fence construction, he said he had agreed to a five-foot railing, not an eight-foot one. But he promised to "find a better way to protect the safety of the people who use the bridge."
He has since submitted a drawing by a structural engineering consultant of a proposed net that would hang under the bridge. He also is calling for the installation of telephones on the span and additional lighting to help detect would-be suicides and prevent them from jumping.
A police spokesman for the 2nd District, which keeps an eye out for such things, said yesterday that police officials are in favor of a fence, a net or anything that would save lives.
There is particular urgency about this issue now, he said, because the holiday season is the time when most jumps occur. "We patrol it and others call us," said Lt. Calvin J. Wilson. "Maybe we should be doing more, but we don't really have the people to put there."
Wilson said his officers have stopped numerous persons from jumping off the bridge and that he personally has dissuaded two or three would-be suicides.
The homicide division handles the cases of those who are not stopped. Their "blunt force" deaths are investigated, and some detectives refer to a leap off the Calvert Street bridge as "taking the A-train," a reference to a jazz standard of the Ellington orchestra.
Urged on by Read, the city's Department of Public Works supported the bridge barrier project enthusiastically during the summer, even when a group of business leaders and preservationists took the District to court to try to stop construction. The court challenge, which argued that officials had not followed federal preservationist procedures before approving the fence, was thrown out and is being appealed.
But on the same day it got the court's go-ahead, the District stopped work on the fence so that alternative suicide-prevention barriers, including a net, could be reconsidered.
"We looked at several options when we first became aware of a problem with the bridge and suicides," said DPW spokeswoman Tara Hamilton. "There are lots of problems with a net, such as debris and maintenance and how we'd get someone out of it."
As for complaints about the fence's height, Hamilton said, "If it wasn't high, it wouldn't be a deterrent."
Smith said he thinks a net would be as effective as a fence, although no one, including the council member's engineering consultant, James Cutts, could name another U.S. bridge where nets are used for this purpose.
"It's not really as good a solution as a fence," said Cutts, who said a would-be suicide could still climb out of the net and continue the jump. "It's just an idea that would save the view from the bridge and appease the community."
The net proposal is projected to cost about $106,000, compared with about $160,000 to build the fence.
Preservationist groups have yet to take a position on the net, except to say they want all federal procedures followed. "We're pleased the councilman has stopped it, but once you get into the best way to deter suicides, we're out of our depth," said Robert Peck, who heads the D.C. Preservation League.
Critics of the net proposal say it would cost more than the projected $106,000; would not work very well in stopping suicides, and would make the bridge look "as if it had diapers on."
Read recently raised another concern, saying the halt in construction was costing the District $100 a day. A spokesman for Long Fence Co., the firm hired to build the fence, would not confirm the cost but said the city would have to pay for the specially fabricated fence materials whether or not the barrier is put up.
John Orcino, owner of the Avignone Freres catering service and president of the 18th and Columbia Road Business Association, said he has seen his share of suicides off the bridge in the 42 years he has lived in the neighborhood. A year ago, he said, he almost fell off the bridge during an unsuccessful attempt to stop a woman from jumping off.
"She took a dive, I grabbed her dress, and she pulled me over," he said. "Fortunately, a cab driver was there and he grabbed my foot."
But he still thinks a fence is a bad idea. "So, someone goes to the bridge, and the fence is up," he said. "So, here comes a bus down the road and he jumps in front of it -- and then the driver is going to feel awful."
But Sandra Bollhoefer, whose brother-in-law jumped off the bridge on his way to see his psychiatrist, called that kind of reasoning "like saying we shouldn't have laws against murder because people will die anyway . . . . I think some people with the impulse to kill themselves but no proximity [to the bridge] might have reason to pause."
For Murray, sadly sorting through Leber's belongings at his Dupont Circle area apartment, the fence would be a success even if it saves just one life.
"It's so terrible to die so young," he said. "I've been depressed, and I've thought about suicide, but no problem justifies it. And now I know how devastating it can be to others."