By Michael Cabanatuan
The decades-long effort to build a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge succeeded Friday as the transportation district's Board of Directors OKd funding for nets that will be installed about three years from now.
"We did it," shouted a woman in the midst of a giant group hug, moments after the board of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District voted unanimously to approve a $76 million funding plan for installation of steel-cable nets 20 feet beneath the east and west edges of the bridge that are intended to deter people from leaping to their deaths or catch them if they do.
Supporters of the suicide net -- most of them family members of people who have jumped to their deaths from the bridge -- knew that the board was expected to finally approve the barrier after decades of death and debate. Still, more than a dozen, some clutching photographs of their deceased sons, daughters, partners and friends, spoke of the unending pain of losing loved ones to suicide and urged directors to approve the plan.
"The time of healing can only begin when the steady drip-drip-drip of bodies into the raging waters has stopped," said Dana Barks of Napa, whose son, Donovan, jumped to his death in 2008.
According to the Bridge Rail Foundation, which has worked for a barrier, at least 1,600 people have jumped to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge, including 46 last year. Many of their family members have joined the campaign for some kind of suicide barrier on the bridge. Some barrier supporters have become familiar faces as they've returned to speak to the bridge board time and again over the years.
After reading a series of Chronicle stories about bridge suicides in the 1970s, Roger Grimes started campaigning for a barrier, walking regularly on the bridge with a sign reading, "Please care: support a suicide barrier," as well as attending numerous meetings.
'It had to happen'
While he was often discouraged by the lack of support, he said after the vote, "I knew someday it would happen. It was so wrong. It had to happen."
Although the funding is lined up and the net is mostly designed, it will take about three years before it is built and installed, said Denis Mulligan, bridge district general manager.
Injured but alive
The net design was chosen out of five potential suicide barriers -- the rest were all 10- to 12-foot fences or walls -- in 2008. Two nets, made of thick steel cables, will be stretched the 1.7-mile length of the bridge two stories beneath its public sidewalks. The presence of the net, bridge officials hope, will deter anyone from jumping.
But if they do, Mulligan said, they'll probably be injured but alive. 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 bridge district will deploy a retrieval device to pluck jumpers from the net.
Nobody voiced any objections to the plan at Friday's meeting, but in the past critics have complained that a barrier would mar the scenic bridge's appearance and that it would simply drive suicidal people elsewhere.
Dr. Mel Blaustein, the medical director of psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital, said research shows that people deterred by barriers from jumping to their deaths do not go to other, nearby sites.
"We have scientific evidence of that," he said.
Suicide barriers on other bridges have proved to be successful in deterring jumpers, according to a study released by barrier backers. At the Ellington Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., suicides dropped from 25 in seven years to one in the five years after a barrier was erected. A span in Switzerland with a net saw suicides drop from 2.5 per year to none.
In approving the spending plan, the directors committed to spend $20 million in bridge tolls to the plan, something they had previously opposed. The rest of the money will come from $49 million in federal funds steered toward the barrier by Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and $7 million in state mental health funds.
'Right thing to do'
Mulligan, in a report to the board, said building the barrier "simply is the right thing to do at this time."
Just before the vote, Director Janet Reilly, who helped campaign for barrier funds, voiced her agreement.
"It's not every day you have an opportunity to save a life, and hardly ever that you have an opportunity to save many lives," she said. "Today is that day."
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