Officials closer to approving a Golden Gate suicide barrier

SAN FRANCISCO – Officials here took another step Tuesday toward approving a suicide prevention barrier for the Golden Gate Bridge, the 71-year-old span that for years has been at the center of a controversy pitting safety against aesthetics.

Bridge officials released an environmental impact report that explores the cost and feasibility of five design options that range from raising the existing pedestrian rail from 4 feet to 12 feet to erecting nets that would catch jumpers.

Mary Currie, a spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, called the report “a milestone” in the study process. “We have never (done) a formal environmental analysis before,” she said. “This is the furthest we’ve seen any suicide-barrier discussion go.”

But the agency has no money to fund any version of the barrier project, which would cost from $25 million to $50 million, Currie said.

Since the bridge opened in 1937, an estimated 2,000 jumpers have taken their lives there. The deck is approximately 260 feet above the water. After a fall of about four seconds, jumpers hit the water at about 88 miles per hour, which is nearly always fatal. Most of those who survive the impact die in the frigid water.

In 2007, 35 people jumped to their deaths from the bridge, a 75 percent increase over the annual average in recent years of 20 such deaths, officials said.

Barrier proponents reacted to the study with both frustration and optimism.

“How many more people die, how many more families have to grieve before these people finally do something?” asked David Hull, president of the pro-barrier Bridge Rail Foundation. His 26-year-old daughter committed suicide on the bridge in 2003.

Currie said one challenge has been the fact that the Art Deco suspension bridge, which connects San Francisco with Marin County, is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, which entails added hurdles to altering the structure. She said studies of how any design changes would hold up to high winds were also recently completed.

Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, said she was hopeful that some type of suicide barrier would be completed one day soon along the 1.7-mile span.

“There are a lot of myths and superstitions about suicide that have helped kill the 2,000 people who have died on this bridge,” she said. “There’s the feeling that they’re going to kill themselves anyway, so why ruin an otherwise beautiful bridge? Others believe the suicidal deserve what they get.

“But the fact is that suicidal feelings are incredibly painful and very brief. They go away. No other people in so much pain are ignored this way.”

Currie said the public has 45 days to weigh in on whether to erect any suicide barrier.

She said bridge directors could decide on the proposed barrier as early as October.

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