What would you do at witnessing someone about to jump from the Coronado Bay Bridge? Consider the tale of real estate appraiser Bryan Knowlton, a 42-year-old resident of Kearny Mesa. On Thursday, May 12, Knowlton left his office near home and headed for Coronado, where he had an 11:00 a.m. appraisal appointment. “It was about 10:30 as I was driving over the bridge,” he tells me. “I like to arrive a little early to take pictures of surrounding properties.
“But traffic was backed up, and everybody was trying to get out of the right lane to go around a parked car. Driving by, I saw a lady looking over the wall, and there was a big bottle of wine on her hood and a smaller bottle of beer.”
In an instant, Knowlton decided to get out and talk to the woman. He pulled up a few feet beyond her car and went back. “I walked up and looked over the side,” he says, “and I said to her, ‘Man, this is scary up here.’ I started asking how she was doing and so on. She told me her car was broken down, though it was still running, and then she walked around to take the keys out of the ignition. And I asked if I could just hang out with her a while. I was trying to stay close the whole time so I could grab her if I needed to. I asked her if she had any kids ’cause I have a couple of my own. And did she have any other family? So I was talking to her and talking to her, but she wasn’t having any of it. She only kept mentioning that her car broke down. She said, ‘I’m waiting for a tow truck, and they’re on their way, and I’d like to just wait here by myself.’ ‘You know,’ I told her, ‘I just don’t feel comfortable with that. Can I hang out with you? I’ll have some drinks with you and chill out.’ At that point, she seemed to be getting bored with me and said, ‘All I want you to do is leave.’”
By then, the woman had started “pounding the wine, taking big gulps, and I thought she was trying to get drunk,” says Knowlton. But the alcohol had not yet taken much effect. She was outwardly calm and was listening to music on headphones. Knowlton says he then offered to give her $100. “Let’s go get some lunch in Coronado and sit on the beach and talk,” he told her. But the woman was not interested.
So Knowlton went to his car and called 911, asking for advice during the conversation. He was told that the highway patrol was already on the way and that he should not put himself in danger. Within seconds, he heard sirens. “I looked in my rearview mirror,” says Knowlton, “and the lady was panicking. She started around to the driver’s side of the car, and I thought she was going to toss the bottles inside and drive off. I got out and was walking toward her. And the police cars were now forcing their way through traffic. But the lady came running back around her car and toward the wall of the bridge. I hurried up to her and grabbed onto her as tight as I could, and we ended up leaning against the wall. At first, my butt was up against the wall, and only later did I realize how low that wall is, maybe three feet or a little more.” (A 1999 Caltrans fact sheet states: “The 34-inch-high barrier railings are low enough to allow an unobstructed view while crossing the bridge.”)
“Meanwhile,” Knowlton continues, “the lady was yelling at me to let her go, and she was trying to get over the wall. Then she began hitting me over the head with the wine bottle and pulling my hair. She seemed very desperate, and finally she goes, ‘If you don’t let me go, you’re going with me.’”
But the bottle fell to the ground, where it broke, and the struggling pair fell on top of the glass. (The sandy-blond Knowlton, who is a little over five feet eight inches tall and weighs 160 pounds, says the woman was slightly shorter but about the same weight.) “By then,” says Knowlton, “two highway patrol officers were there, and they dragged us to the middle of the road. Both of them jumped on us because she was still struggling. I heard one of the cops say the word ‘Taser,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, no, I’m attached to her. How’s this going to work out?’ Suddenly, though, she yelled out ‘Fine,’ and she stopped resisting, and the cops handcuffed her.”
The police took information from Knowlton both on the bridge and at the old tollbooths on its west side. “One of the officers shook my hand and thanked me for helping them out,” he says. “Everything worked out perfectly from my point of view because I was sick to my stomach thinking she’s going to jump right here in front of me. I was very lucky that it didn’t turn out that way.”
As soon as he could get away from the scene, Knowlton called to tell his wife of 11 years what had happened, “and then I completely lost it. I was in shock for the rest of the day.” Word of the incident circulated quickly through his neighborhood, and his children, a ten-year-old daughter and a son who is eight, put out a sign on their front door for his arrival home. It read, “Papa, you’re a hero.” Later, pain reminded Knowlton of what he’d been through. “At the time the lady was hitting me with the bottle and pulling my hair, it didn’t feel like much,” he tells me. “But my head really hurt that night. And so did my upper back, which I think was caused by the officers jumping on us.” But the glass from the broken bottle he had fallen on did little damage. “I thought the sharp points might have stuck into me. But it was more like a little road rash,” he said.
Surprising to Knowlton was how down in the dumps he became in the aftermath of his good deed. “It took me a good two or three days to get over some depression. You think you wouldn’t be depressed, but I kept playing everything over again in my mind, and it was working me down and down to a point that I couldn’t even talk about it. But, finally, it’s starting to feel a little better. At least I saved someone’s life, and I should feel good about it. It took a few days for that to sink in. And I just hope that what the lady went through was just a cry for help that she’s over now.”
Knowlton has conflicting thoughts about nobody stopping to help as he talked to the woman on the bridge, whose name has not been released. “When she wasn’t looking, I signaled people driving by to help, and I’m sure lots of people called the police,” he tells me, “but it is surprising that nobody got out to help. I mean, why was there this big-ass bottle of wine sitting on the hood of her car and she was swigging at it like she wanted to get trashed?
“I think only a small percentage of people will get involved in something like that. If the lady had panicked and jumped when I was first walking up to her, that would have changed my life forever. And maybe other people driving by were afraid of the same thing. After a few days had passed, I talked to a number of my friends who said they’d have been reluctant to get involved, too. So I’ve eased up on my judgment of the way most people react.”
How high are the odds that ordinary citizens will ever witness someone try to jump from the Coronado Bay Bridge — or any other suicide attempt? As of May 1, 2008, according to a Voice of San Diego article from the same date, there had been 233 suicides from the bridge. Ashley Hatton posted a comment to the article, asking people to contact her “if you have witnessed a stranger’s suicide and are willing to share your experience.” Hatton is a candidate for the doctorate of psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology. I reached her by phone in Massachusetts.
“I put a similar request for information on Craigslist,” she told me, “and I got about 30 people to respond with their stories.” (Hatton is incorporating the anecdotes into her dissertation, which in large part is an effort to shine light on what people experience who witness suicides.) “So that tells me that witnessing suicides might happen more often than we think,” she said.