Monday, July 30, 2007

Coroner spans controversy with Golden Gate suicides report

Bridge deaths
John M. Glionna
Times Staff Writer

7:12 PM PDT, July 30, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO — For decades, Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes preached against publicizing the frequency of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.

He claimed media tallies of the deaths created a circus atmosphere and even encouraged some people to jump. His campaign succeeded in 1995 when Bay Area newspapers and TV stations agreed to stop treating the deaths as news.

But Monday, the 65-year-old veteran medical examiner defied his own conventional wisdom: He released a 10-year study of bridge suicides he said was designed to call attention to the problem and shed insight into some of the more than 1,300 people who have jumped to their deaths since the bridge opened in 1937.

He also wants officials to erect a suicide barrier to prevent future deaths.

"I'm tired of the carnage," he said. "The public needs to know these needless deaths continue at an alarming rate."

For the first half of 2007, the bridge was the site of an average of one suicide a month, a significant jump from the prior year although the rate slowed inexplicably during July, Holmes said. Last year, 34 people jumped to their deaths. The toll so far this year is 23.

Anti-suicide activists say Holmes' study shattered one myth -- that many people travel long distances to kill themselves on the Golden Gate Bridge because of the span's iconic status. Northern California residents accounted for more than 92 percent of the past decade's suicide jumps, the statistics show.

Male jumpers outnumbered women almost three to one. The average age of the suicide victims was 42. The oldest jumper was 84, the youngest 14.

The study includes 200 suicide cases handled by Marin County officials, which investigates 95 percent of bridge suicide deaths. The rest are handled by neighboring counties.

Holmes released the study to mark the 70th anniversary of the bridge's first suicide. On Aug. 7, 1937, World War I veteran Harold Wobber was receiving psychiatric treatment at the veteran's hospital in Palo Alto when he cut short a walk on the bridge with a friend with the chilling last words: "This is as far as I go."

Activists argue that a bridge barrier would significantly reduce the number of suicide deaths. This year, Holmes helped found the Bridge Rail Foundation, composed of psychiatrists and families of bridge jumpers, to pressure officials to erect a barrier, even at the expense of bridge aesthetics.

Along the pedestrian walkway visited by millions of tourists each year, only a 4-foot-high railing separates visitors from the bay waters below.

"I believe a higher railing would stop a lot of the suicide attempts," Holmes said. "A lot of people go to the bridge really in the moment, rather than carrying through any well-thought-out effort to end their lives. Of course, you're not going to stop all of them. I'm not that idealistic."

Bridge officials have completed the first phase of a two-part feasibility study on erecting a suicide barrier -- either by adding to or replacing the current railing or adding a horizontal net. "One thing we learned is that there is a workable solution," said Mary Currie, a spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge. A plan might be ready for public input by as early as this fall, she added.

Holmes, who has been medical examiner since 1998, joined the office in the 1970s. Conducting autopsies of bridge jumpers, he handled bodies so devastated they were unrecognizable.

The fall from the bridge lasts four seconds and is comparable to a jump off a 25-story building, researchers say. At impact, the body is traveling 75 mph.

The Holmes study was hailed Monday by one 26-year-old San Franciscan who years ago survived a Golden Gate suicide jump.

Kevin Hines recalls leaping from the span as an emotionally distraught college freshman. His first thought after going into a frantic free-fall: "What did I just do? I don't want to die."

Hines landed feet first and recovered from severe internal injuries. He says that increased publicity about the high frequency of such suicides as well as the sheer violence of the impact might have dissuaded him from taking his fateful plunge:

"Many people who jump have extreme mental illness. The word needs to get out, so the people who died did not die in vain."

Holmes acknowledges that it's unusual for an official in his position to take a public stand on such a controversial issue. But he says the Golden Gate Bridge is the site of too many deaths that a simple renovation would prevent.

"If that rail was just 6-foot-tall, it would delete 75 percent of the suicides," he said. "Because now it is just too easy to kill yourself there. You don't even have to climb. You can just lean over the rail and go."