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I-TEAM EXCLUSIVE: Record number of suicides from Golden Gate Bridge

There were a record number of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge, so why has a suicide prevention barrier been delayed?
February 21, 2014 12:00:00 AM PST
The ABC7 News I-Team has uncovered a disturbing fact -- 2013 was a record year for suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet, a suicide prevention barrier has been stuck in bureaucratic red tape.

The media is sometimes hesitant to report on the issue of suicide, for fear of inspiring copycats. But, mental health professionals tell us this is important because a suicide barrier on the bridge can help prevent these deaths. The numbers are not exact and it's hard to imagine, but as many as 2,000 people have died at the Golden Gate since it was built.

Kim and Manuel Gamboa invited us to walk the Golden Gate Bridge with them -- not to take in the view like so many tourists that day, but to remember their 18-year-old son, Kyle who died there last September.

Manuel Gamboa describes his son as "energetic, vibrant, popular".

The Gamboas drive from the Sacramento area twice a month to attend the Bridge District board meetings, to push for a suicide prevention barrier.

Kimberly Renee Gamboa told the board, "Time is of the essence. For every day, every week and every month, more people die by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge."

The board members actually approved the suicide barrier in 2008 -- a steel net that will hang about 20 feet below the sidewalk. But, they have refused to fund the project.

California Assembly Member Tom Ammiano told us, "To be quibbling and dithering around what agency is going to provide what proportion of the money, I find that very, very upsetting."

Ammiano has been pushing for the suicide barrier for more than 20 years. He says the Bridge District, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Caltrans can't agree on the amount each will pay for the $66 million project. Ammiano says, "If we would have had the deterrent years ago, those lives would have been saved."

We took Ammiano's concerns to Golden Gate Bridge District general manager Denis Mulligan. He confirmed it's a funding issue.

Noyes: "Is it as Ammiano describes, just a matter of quibbling between the partners over who's going to pay what share?"
Mulligan: "Right now, we're having lots of conversations with lots of funding agencies and we're trying to see if we can finalize the conversations to put together a full funding plan."

The families of those who've died are upset that the bridge will be installing a $26 million moveable barrier to prevent head-on collisions by the end of the year. One person has been killed in a head-on crash on the Golden Gate in the past 15 years. There were four other non-fatal head-on collisions in that time period.

We asked the general manager, "Why install the moveable barrier when you have many more people dying because of a lack of a suicide barrier?"
Mulligan: "We were very fortunate that we were able to get outside funding for the moveable medium barrier."

The district's latest numbers show a record 46 confirmed suicides in 2013 -- 10 in the month of August alone.

John Bateson told us, "There's no indication that the number is going to decrease in any significant way."

Bateson is a long-time suicide hotline counselor and author of a book about the bridge's deadly history. He says more people die from suicide on the Golden Gate than any other structure in the world -- about one death every 10 days.

Bateson said, "If there were two or three deaths every month from cable car accidents in the city or if a fan fell to their death from AT&T Park every 10 days, the problem would be fixed immediately. I mean public pressure would demand it."

There are the faces behind the numbers. They come from all walks of life.

"Cathy was bright, sensitive. She was an artist," said David Hull, Cathy's father.

"My son, Michael, was one of the sweetest sons you could ever ask for," said Kay James, Michael's mother.

"Todd really enjoyed people. He really enjoyed getting to know all different people," said Marilee Brooks, Todd's wife.

They are the faces of young people who showed so much promise.

"Gabri was highly creative. Very, very sensitive and very giving with animals and people. She always put all the people in front of herself," said Nicholas Aparicio, Gabri's father.

Everyone in the group we spoke to lost someone on the Golden Gate Bridge. Most died after the board approved the net.

Joy Ravelli, a mother, lost her son on August 3, 2009.

Sue Story, a mother, lost her son on November 22, 2010.

Mark Johnson, a father, lost his son on December 15, 2011.

Nicholas Aparicio, a father, lost his daughter "this past August. August 29, 2013."

The family members shared their stories with us, their private pain, in hopes of spurring the bureaucrats to finally get it done.

"They'll say, 'Well, why should we spend $50 or $60 million for a suicide barrier? They'll just go somewhere else.' And that's not true. There's no evidence to support that," said John Brooks, a father.

"We know in suicide prevention that limiting access to lethal means prevents suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge is a lethal means. For many of us in the Bay Area, it's like having a gun in your backyard," said Tanya Kaplan, a girlfriend.

The bridge general manager's office has an incredible view, and he has seen firsthand how urgent this issue is.

We asked Denis Mulligan, "From your office, have you ever seen someone jump?" and he replied, "Next question."

It took him a minute to finally answer.

Mulligan: "I've worked at the bridge a long time, so unfortunately, I have witnessed people take their lives here at the bridge."
Noyes: "Does that affect in any way the decisions you make or your push for the suicide barrier? Do you personally favor the suicide barrier?"
Mulligan: "I value every human life."

No firm answers why the number of suicides was up last year. The author believes it's because the Bridge District removed the toll takers, so drivers have no easy way to report someone on the bridge. However, the district argues that's not the case -- that most of the tips come in by drivers on cell phones. The district also tells us, they prevented 118 people from jumping off the bridge last year -- that's also a record.

Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Bridge Rail Foundation
Golden Gate Bridge District


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