Golden Gate's deathly aura haunts city San Francisco out to end suicides

November 08, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO -- Three months after the Golden Gate Bridge opened in May 1937, a war veteran named Harold B. Wobber climbed over its rust-red railing and plunged 220 feet to his death. Since then, a grim parade of tormented souls have followed him, giving the San Francisco landmark dubious fame as the No. 1 suicide shrine in the Western world.

Most were killed instantly, but one who survived his four-second tumble called it "the only stylish way to go." Another described it as "certain death in a painless way," and "a romantic thing to do."

San Franciscans have long regretted the morbid legend their beloved bridge has become, and now Mayor Frank Jordan, hoping to reduce deaths and rid the bridge of its haunting stigma, is pitching a plan to equip the span with emergency telephones linked straight to suicide prevention counselors.

"It is high time we took some action to prevent this ongoing tragedy," the mayor recently declared.

Experts applaud the idea, but say it does not go far enough. They want a suicide barrier erected on the bridge, a solution proven effective at the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building and other once-notorious plunging platforms.

"Phone lines are a step in the right direction, but they won't save those who are really determined to go," said Dr. Jerome Motto, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco and an authority on suicides. "The bridge is like a loaded gun on your coffee table. If we really want to save lives, we need to unload that gun."

Today the official tally of victims totals 938 -- a number that excludes 422 "possibles" whose bodies never turned up. Many leave notes that bespeak their despair. One memorable message, left by a 72-year-old man in 1959, read: "Survival of the fittest. Adios -- Unfit."

Psychologists have long puzzled over the peculiar attraction the Golden Gate holds for the suicidal. The obvious ones are accessibility and the fact that jumping is quick and extremely lethal.

Through the years, civic leaders have debated anti-suicide solutions ranging from electric fences to safety nets to signs urging people to "Think Before You Leap." In the 1970s, a proposed 8-foot-high barrier was widely studied and ultimately rejected for reasons of aesthetics and cost.

But the issue was revived earlier this year after a man from the suburbs threw his 3-year-old daughter over the bridge and then jumped after her in one of the more horrifying suicides in bridge history.

While some argue that a barrier would only persuade the suicidal go somewhere else to kill themselves, research suggests otherwise. Richard Seiden, a psychologist and longtime student of bridge suicides, said one study of Golden Gate survivors showed that the vast majority never attempted suicide again.

Mayor Jordan has not ruled out the barrier idea, but for now is pushing the emergency phones as part of a suicide awareness program.

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