The Golden Gate Bridge is among the most photographed bridges in the world, recognized internationally as a majestic symbol of San Francisco, and the United States. But for decades, and for scores of mourning families, the bridge has also become a symbol of pain.
In 2016, 39 people died jumping off the bridge, considered one of the top suicide magnets in the world. Another 184 came to the bridge intending to harm themselves but were stopped.
The deaths have scarred the bridge’s reputation and prompted local officials, lawmakers and families of those who died to call for the construction of barriers to deter people from jumping off the 220-foot-tall bridge.
“At that moment, there’s really no way out,” said Sarah Lockwood Barr, 26, whose childhood friend jumped off the bridge in 2008. “It’s just too easy and too final.”
For about a decade, officials have debated constructing such an obstacle, confronting a question that has been researched and scrutinized around the world: Do barriers to suicide stop people from taking their lives? Or will suicidal people simply find another alternative?
A wealth of studies and findings have supported an optimistic view. And the years-long effort finally culminated Thursday in an official launch of the construction of a $200 million stainless steel net along the bridge. The suicide deterrent system will span 1.7 miles of roadway on each side and will be located 20 feet down from the sidewalk, extending 20 feet out over the water. It will be built over four years, with an expected completion date in 2021.
In May, contractors will begin installing temporary fencing along the bridge and will being making measurements to manufacture the net.
In a commemoration ceremony Thursday, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the deterrent would provide a “critical second chance, maybe more than that” for those acting on “impulsive thoughts.”
“People would say to us, ‘Isn’t that a lot of money for a barrier? For a net?’” Pelosi said of the project, which initially was estimated to cost $76 million and now has a price tag of over $200 million. “And I would say, ‘No it’s not a lot of money for a life. For all of these lives.’”
Officials hope the net, made of thick steel cables, will deter people from jumping in the first place. If they jump, they’re likely to survive but with injuries. The net, suspended from posts, will have a slightly upward slope, and will collapse a bit if someone lands in it, making it difficult for the jumper to climb out, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. The bridge district would use a retrieval device to pluck jumpers from the net.
Similar deterrent systems have been used successfully in various locations around the world, but never on this scale, bridge officials said in a news release. In support of such suicide deterrents, many have cited a breakthrough 1978 study at the Golden Gate Bridge showing that 90 percent of those stopped from jumping did not later die by suicide or other violent means. More broadly, a Harvard School of Public Health article reviewing numerous studies showing that nine out of 10 people who attempt suicide and survive will not go on to die by suicide at a later date.
Other studies linked the installation of barriers to reductions in suicides at hotspots such as the Muenster Terrace in Bern, Switzerland, and the Memorial Bridge in Augusta, Maine. But as Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, noted in The Post, a major study in Toronto raised doubt, noting that after the installation of a barrier at Bloor Street Viaduct, suicides there dropped but increased by a comparable amount at other bridges and buildings in Toronto.
A later study from the University of Melbourne, however, combined findings across all prior studies and found that the net benefit of a suicide barrier is a 28 percent decrease in suicides by jumping per year.
For someone like Lockwood Barr’s childhood friend, Casey Brooks, such a barrier could have made all the difference, she said.
Casey Brooks, 17, was halfway through her senior year and already accepted into college when she jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in January 2008. She was an intelligent, “wickedly funny” lover of music. “She had every reason to live,” Lockwood Barr, told The Post. “It was a complete shock.”
As much and as long as Casey struggled internally, Casey’s final act happened much too quickly, Lockwood Barr said.
“Anyone can have a bad moment, pull up your car and hop over the four foot railing and be gone in a second,” Lockwood Barr said. Some may be drawn to the bridge for its accessibility, yet others travel to it for its international prestige. “A lot of people think they’ll have this glamorous final act in their life,” Lockwood Barr said.
After Casey’s death, Lockwood Barr, also 17 at the time, approached her town council in Tiburon, outside San Francisco, in an attempt to create a resolution for a suicide barrier on the bridge, among the first resolutions of its kind. With the help of many others, including Casey’s parents, the resolution passed. It contributing to a growing groundswell of support for the deterrent, Lockwood Barr said.
At the time, Lockwood Barr said she would keep a wallet-sized senior picture of Casey with her at all times until the barrier became a reality. In 2014, when plans for the barrier were approved, she began keeping it by her bedside instead. On Thursday, nearly a decade later, Lockwood Barr carried the wallet-sized picture with her to the commemoration ceremony and official launch of the net’s construction.
“The barrier buys time,” Lockwood Barr said. “Time is what allows a person to see that there will be another day.”
More from Morning Mix