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Through the Air into Darkness

As San Diego police sergeant Boyd Long stopped on the Coronado bridge to check a stalled car, he immediately noticed something was amiss. The stranded motorist stepped away rather than beckon for assistance.

"Then it dawns on me as he starts to jog. Here is someone who is going to jump." Boyd broke into a trot to keep pace, desperately trying to initiate conversation. "Hey, hey, stop for a second." The suicide suspect crawled onto the bridge's side rail, resumed jogging, tripped on a reflector, and regained his balance. Closing the distance between them, Boyd called out, "What's the problem? We'll help you," ...to no avail. Yelling an obscenity, the man took a big step.

Although that suicide attempt occurred 12 years ago, it remains so vivid in Boyd's memory, he speaks in present tense. "I see him tumbling through the air end-over-end into the darkness." Boyd heard a splash. Then, to his astonishment and relief, he heard the man cry, "Help, help."

When it opened to traffic as the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge in 1969, there were no deaths recorded for at least three years. Since 1972, 202 people have committed suicide there by jumping. In 1989 the California Assembly officially called the bridge the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, but many drivers still refer to it by the old name they see on signs. Even less well known is many more people have been talked out of jumping — more than 1000, by some estimates — than have actually jumped. A small number — at least 10 individuals -- have survived that fall, which ranges from 120 feet to 275 feet, depending on the starting point. That height compares with 220 feet for San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Survival from the Coronado bridge is attributed to such factors as shorter drops, the body's position on entering the bay, or landing in a ship's wake, which softens the water's cementlike surface.

The San Diego Harbor Police, which almost always recovers bodies from the bay, keeps the most complete records on Coronado-bridge suicides. But no agency has tracked the number of attempts there, which often result in hours-long traffic jams. Data about people jumping from freeway overpasses is also scarce, although there are occasional news reports about suicides and attempts from the Pine Valley Bridge, Interstate 805, and the Laurel Street bridge near Balboa Park. According to records at the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, about 7 or 8 people a year jump from high bridges spanning land or rivers. The California Highway Patrol, which is ultimately responsible for the Coronado bridge because it is part of State Route 75, this year began filing reports on all suicides and attempts there.

Much of the information about potential jumpers and the few who survive jumps is anecdotal. In most cases, the rescuers who help deter suicides are police officers responding to emergency calls from the California Department of Transportation, which monitors the Coronado bridge with five cameras, and from motorists who see something unusual. Boyd happened to be on a routine patrol when he detected his suicide suspect. Although the San Diego Police Department has an emergency negotiations team specially trained to handle suicide attempts, hostage scenes, and other crises, it doesn't always arrive first on the Coronado bridge. So police officers such as Boyd, who may never have taken a psychology course, must rely on their instincts to persuade troubled individuals from killing themselves.

Coronado police sergeant Jeffrey C. Hutchins estimates that, for each bridge death, 5 to 10 people are dissuaded from jumping. That would mean 30 to 60 people were talked off the Coronado bridge last year, compared with the 6 people who died. His estimate is plausible, given Hutchins saved 21 people during 1982, action that garnered him an "officer of the year" award. That same year, which Hutchins regards as an aberration, 9 people killed themselves by leaping from the Coronado bridge.

Some law-enforcement officers and transportation officials are reluctant to discuss the universal phenomenon of bridge suicides. The Golden Gate claims many more lives — an estimated 24 last year and a total of at least 311 since 1987, when the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District started keeping more detailed records. Ron Garcia, the Golden Gate's captain, agreed with Hutchins's lower estimate that 5 people are saved for every death.

Michael D. Martin, toll captain of the Coronado bridge, has personally prevented three people from jumping during his long career with Caltrans. On one occasion, when he worked as toll sergeant for the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Long Beach, Martin coaxed a pedestrian into turning around and joining him for coffee in the office, where they spent four hours talking. "You open your heart to the people who need your time and effort," Martin said, stressing that Caltrans employees — particularly toll collectors, drivers of tow trucks, and other maintenance vehicles — are often the first to encounter potential jumpers.

Gentleness is just one approach. In Coronado, Martin once tackled a woman who had ignored his pleas that she not walk on the bridge, which has no pedestrian paths. "I realized she was either going to get run over or jump off the bridge," Martin recalled of the distraught woman who had been arguing with her husband near the toll administration building.

Martin's commonly held belief that news reports inspire more suicides stems from a nine-hour closure of the Vincent Thomas Bridge during the early 1980s. A desperate young man attempting to kill himself had hitchhiked there all the way from Oklahoma after reading a newspaper article about a suicide from that particular bridge.

Coronado police officer Kevin Hirsch, who has won two awards for talking people off the Coronado bridge, said more disclosure might deter suicides. "It's an awful death. It's like hitting concrete. The water doesn't give," Hirsch said, adding that some victims actually do hit concrete, on the bridge's piers or footings. "Knowing how gruesome the death is might prevent people from jumping. Is it really worth it?" That kind of fall can maim or cripple people, too. Hirsch recalls one survivor, a 5'11" tall male, was only 5'5", after hitting the bay.

"It sounds crass, but to the media, it's no big deal. Unless we block traffic for four hours, it doesn't get in the paper. That's sad. It is a big deal," Hirsch said. "I disagree with the copycat-suicide theory. People who are despondent are going to do whatever they need to do to get that feeling of pain away from them."

Education, rather than silence, is the antidote to reduce suicide, Hirsch said. In his experience, many suicidal individuals say their families would be better off without them — at least they would receive money from any life-insurance policies. "A lot of people don't realize that suicide isn't covered by life insurance." Like many police officers who find themselves talking to people threatening suicide, Hirsch tries to connect quickly, use first names, and identify a topic that seems to induce a calming effect.

Senior officer Dominick Boccia's 12-year stint with the San Diego Harbor Police indicates the prevalence of suicide throughout the city. After joining the force in 1988, the first day he was assigned to a boat, Boccia helped pull the body of a Coronado bridge-jumper from the bay. Breaking the grimness of that routine task over the years was the time Boccia rescued a woman who actually recovered from the fall. Boccia has also talked a few people out of jumping.

Although harbor police are mostly associated with water and marinas, Boccia has investigated myriad suicides on port property. They range from some people who shot themselves to others who have jumped from the top floors of resort hotels to one victim who — Anna Karenina-style — threw himself under a moving train. During a two-week period in July, Boccia joined other law enforcement in responding to an unusual number of calls involving suicides and attempts. They included: a man who tried to jump from the Coronado bridge, another man who killed himself doing so, a woman who slit her wrists on two different occasions, a man who stepped in front of a rental-car bus, and a transient who threatened to stab himself in the San Diego County administration building.

Regardless of the method, said Piedad Garcia, clinical director of San Diego County Mental Health Services, suicide is a violent act. "It's a very strong statement of how a person feels. People who commit suicide are not only very angry at themselves but also angry at the world around them."

Garcia oversees treatment of 30,000 mentally ill adults in San Diego County, nearly all of whom depend on public assistance. County residents who attempt suicide are often taken to the agency's psychiatric hospital for evaluation. If they have their own medical insurance, they are transferred to private facilities elsewhere. Suicide accounts for a tiny portion of Garcia's work, but she sees special symbolism in the Coronado bridge.

"People who really want to commit suicide — at the bridge's highest point — know that they will die. People who jump on either side, at the beginning or the end, might have a tendency to survive. Bridges connect one side to another," Garcia said. "People who commit suicide lack connections with their next of kin, with their lovers, with their friends. They're feeling at a distance."

In a little-known instance of serendipity, Garcia once helped make connections for a young man she spotted — through peripheral vision — sitting on the ledge of the Coronado bridge. At the time, about 15 years ago, Garcia was driving with a fellow psychologist from her home in Coronado to a play in San Diego. She looked in the rearview mirror. The young man's legs dangled over the edge. He rocked back and forth. He held a large bottle of beer. Garcia stopped, backed up her car, and started talking. She tried English, then Spanish. "He was crying, crying, crying." She quickly gleaned that the young Hispanic had recently lost his girlfriend, cared about his mother, and believed in God.

So Garcia connected by using the term "la fe," or faith in Spanish. She built a soothing, mantra-like theme: "Faith that things will be better, faith that things can change, faith that bad things will pass." Meanwhile, through her peripheral vision, Garcia noticed traffic had ceased and police officers surrounded her. In addition, she felt the bridge sway in the wind. "It was eerie."

The young man slid on the ledge toward Garcia and extended his hand. A policeman she couldn't see stood behind her, whispering instructions, advising her not to take the man's hand. "It was very surreal to me." After persuading the man to dismount the ledge, Garcia realized, "If I gave him my hand, he could have pulled me over."

Rescuers such as Garcia, Hirsch, and Hutchins seldom learn the outcome of potential suicide victims, and more rarely have contact afterwards. Although Boyd sometimes wondered about the man he saw tumble into the bay, he was surprised ten years later to hear the man wanted to meet him. Boyd was even more surprised by the man's expression of gratitude, given that police don't often receive any thanks for their intervention. "He had his child with him. He thanked me for caring. The thing that makes me feel good is that he turned his life around," Boyd said. "Life is very valuable." *

San Diego County Mental Health Services has a contract with United Behavioral Health to operate a toll-free hot line 24 hours a day. Many telephone calls concern Medi-Cal authorizations for mental-health services. But the hot line also serves people who feel suicidal, suffer from mental illness, or face other crises. The number is 800-479-3339.

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