Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Suicide Bridges

The George Washington Bridge 

There is something about bridges and suicide. 

At least 2,000 people have jumped off the the Golden Gate Bridge in California since its opening in the early 1930s.   After many years of agitation by a very few survivors, many relatives of the dead and many more mental-health professionals, the bridge authority agreed last year to erect barriers to stop the deaths.  Alas, the work will take years to complete. 

I used to live in the Bay Area, and I thought then that the Golden Gate was a one-off -- an iconic bridge with a popular pedestrian walkway looking out on a gorgeous city -- a natural attraction to desperately unhappy people. 

But I have learned since that I was wrong.  


The George Washington Bridge, a double-decker, traffic-choked, clogged, noisy artery between New Jersey and New York, also attracts suicidal people. The numbers are not as high as in the case of the Golden Gate, but they are rising.  

The last GWB suicide report came last week.  A woman, just 22 and diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, flew into New York after a final visit with friends in Europe at 1 p.m. one afternoon.  By 4:30 p.m. her body was found in the Hudson River.

Some recent anecdotes:

      --  Eighteen of 26 police rookies who joined the GWB squad at the end of September 2014 stopped attempted suicides in their first four months on the job. One new officer had convinced two people not to jump, another four.  

     -- In May, a transgender woman who had been bullied in online chat rooms went over the bridge rail and died. 

     -- In April, four people threw themselves off the bridge and died in a nine-day period. 

     -- On an afternoon in March, two men, unknown to each other, jumped from the bridge and died within a period of several minutes.   

For  a long time, bridge employees reported that about six people killed themselves annually on the GWB.  In 2014, 18 jumpers died and 74 other people were talked off or pulled off the ledge by police officers and good samaritans. 

If current trends hold, more people will die in 2015.  

To its credit, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is acting faster than its Golden Gate equivalent, where the decision to enact barriers was delayed by many years of public opposition on aesthetic grounds.  (The solution adopted was to string metal nets under the walkway so as not to obscure the view.)  In the GWB case, port officials simply announced that barriers will be part of a planned major overhaul on the George Washington, as well as the Tappan Zee and Bayonne bridges.

My view is this:  We may not be able to stop all desperately miserable people from killing themselves, but simple humanity obliges us not to make it easy for them to do so.

A Sad Note

In Lisbon, Portugal, there is a famous bridge, built by the same company that built San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.  As you can see, it looks a lot like its California cousin.  

In 1973 and 1974, the Portuguese military and civil activists overthrew the country's dictatorship and put in place an elected democracy that divested Portugal of its third-world colonies.  

Afterward, the bridge was renamed the 25 de Abril Bridge, for the national holiday that recognizes the beginning of the  bloodless, successful Carnation Revolution.   

This year on the 25th of April, two different men drove out on the bridge, abandoned their cars and jumped to their deaths in the Tagus River. 

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