San Diego’s Coronado Bridge: Suicide Prevention Measures Considered

 

San Diego's Coronado Bridge

San Diego’s Coronado Bridge

As of May, 2015, the City Council responsible for the Management of the Coronado Bridge in San Diego gave a unanimous vote to study the type of suicide prevention barrier that would be the most effective.

The Coronado Bridge Suicide Prevention Collaborative has initiated a project similar to that of San Francisco, for a barrier costing $75 million, consisting of a -20 foot wide steel net.

The numbers of completed suicides in San Diego in recent months appear to differ. Some local articles list 131 in the past 15 years. Other sources, drawing from such resources as the Coronado Police Department and the Medical Examiner and the California Highway Patrol report more than 150 people have jumped off the bridge to their deaths since the year 2000.

Even more devastating is the fact that since January 2015, police have responded to 41 additional attempts.

Homelessness in San Diego County – A Factor, January 2015

According to the San Diego Union Tribune April 2015 article,  the number of people living on the street or in shelters in San Diego County increased by 2.8 percent from last year, according to results of an annual count of homeless people. (This is an estimate.)

Volunteers in the annual count found 4,156 people living on the streets, a 4.3 increase from last year. Another 4,586 people were in shelters, a 1.4 percent increase from last year.

Of the 4,156 people on the street, about 70 percent were males and 15.4 percent were veterans. Almost 28 percent were believed to have either an addiction or severe mental illness, and more than 70 percent said they had been homeless a year or longer.

The WeAllCount Campaign, also known as the Point-in-Time Count, was held in the early morning hours on Jan. 23, 2015.  That’s over 8,700 homeless people!

Sand Diego's Coronado Bridge

Sand Diego’s Coronado Bridge

Suicide Then and Now:

As reported since my previous blog in July, 2011, San Diego’s Coronado Bridge and the City’s Recent Suicides, the signs along the bridge giving suicide prevention counseling information haven’t been working.

CalTrans, the company who oversees the maintenance of the Coronado Bridge seems to have taken their former callous attitude and snuffed it, in favor of a more compassionate stance to at least do a feasibility study.

According to public information officer, Edward Cartagena of CalTrans, many variables have to be considered. What works in San Francisco, may not work in Coronado. Although they have added technology in the event of earthquakes, added weight and wind currents need to be considered (in addition to cost).

Dr. Jennifer Lewis on the faculty of the Department of Social Work at the University of California – San Diego, wants a sense of urgency to be placed on this issue. In reality, a feasibility study can range from six months to two years to complete.  She is in favor of a barrier, saying “other places where they’ve gone in, they’ve been 100 percent effective.”

The Coronado Bridge Suicide Prevention Collaborative is serving as the watchdog.  From recent posts on their Facebook page, it appears they are doing what they can to build awareness and prevention. https://vimeo.com/132130635.

Witnessing of a Suicide

Dr. Lewis wants to protect the potential further witnessing of suicide that can be as traumatic as those who have lost a loved one. Not much is found on internet resources about this aspect. 

An anonymous writer wrote of this experience in 2008 – A haunting experience to witness the suicide of a stranger as a “good Samaritan.” (Some editing)

“Last week I was driving over the San Francisco Bay Bridge and watched someone get up on the railing and jump off. I found out later that he died and was picked up by the authorities.

I did all the things I was supposed to do – called 911, checked in with the authorities, let myself cry before driving a vehicle etc. I’ve been in touch with friends who are therapists and gotten plenty of hugs and loving people to support me.

The image of him getting up on the side of the bridge and the way his body looked as he jumped haunts me. I know it’s probably too early to expect that it go away. I’m just struggling with what meaning to find in it all and how to find people who won’t judge what I am experiencing.

I’ve looked for support sites online and have found a number of places that are for friends or family who have had someone they love commit suicide. However, I don’t even know this guy’s name. I wouldn’t want to be intruding on what is obviously a very sensitive time for someone who has a friend or family member die. 

This situation is challenging for me because I don’t know much about what happened, or why it happened. There is not much more information I can learn. I also have found that while some family or friends have tried to be helpful. They have had a tough time not assigning blame, being judgmental or putting their own issues about death and suicide onto my plate.  As a result of their attitudes, this experience feels even more confusing and alienating.”

I sincerely hope and pray that this person sought professional counselling and was able to focus in the land of the living.

Sand Diego's Coronado Bridge

Sand Diego’s Coronado Bridge

Putting the Pieces Together – One Woman’s Story

As reported in an San Francisco Chronicle in 2005, (some portions edited) investigators with the Coroner’s Office are a special breed of detectives.  Those who are elderly jumpers are few and far between.

Such was the case of Lois Anne Houston.  She was a heavy-set 75-year-old, who jumped from the San Francisco Bridge and apparently hit the water face first. The impact opened up her face from nose to chin, leaving a gaping red wound and a grotesque death mask.

The investigator, Darryl Harris stated, “There must be something pretty outrageous in her life that made her do this.” You just don’t see this occur – hardly ever.”   That would turn out to be true.

Lois chose a cloudy Sunday morning, April 24, in which to end her life. She drove north onto the bridge, in her blue Ford Taurus, put the emergency flashers on and climbed over the divider to the pedestrian walkway. A California Highway Patrol officer spotted the car and went to investigate. He saw that the vehicle was empty and then saw Houston on top of the bridge railing, according to the report.

Inspector Harris found Houston’s body in the familiar spot, on the long tray under a tarp on the dock. He pulled back the tarp and went through the routine of checking the body and looking for identification including her purse.

It was tough to see Houston on the pallet. The impact had shredded her clothing. Her black pants and floral print blouse were in tatters, barely clinging to her arms and legs. Her panties and bra were in pieces.

There was bruising everywhere, on her thighs, chest, back and face. She wore a gold watch and a ring on her finger. She wore black socks and was missing one shoe.

Her wallet had photos, but it was difficult to know with certainty, which was portrayed in the photos.

Lois‘ sister from Florida returned a call received from a police officer, Her sister stated that Lois “had no family out west.”  She had lived with another woman for 40 years, and her partner had died last summer.

In the interim, Lois was diagnosed with colon cancer. Lois recently had been told that her cancer had spread to her liver.  (I think Lois, still actively grieving, just wanted to be with her partner all the more after receiving the news and decided to “skip a prolonged, painful death“ as her choice.”)

The pathologist reported clinically and coldly that Lois “died of multiple blunt-force injuries, due to a “jump from height.”

 

Returning to the Trenches and the Effectiveness of Suicide Barriers

Whether stated in 2005, or 2015, Inspectors with the Coroner’s office have their own opinions.

At the time in 2005, Darryl Harris said “he didn’t have an opinion” on whether the bridge should have a suicide barrier. However, most of the jumpers he investigated had significant histories of suicidal behavior.  Harris’ comment,“I don’t know that a barrier would do much good, I think people will find other ways to kill themselves, and it might mean they do something that puts someone else in danger, like jumping off a building or intentionally driving their car into traffic.”  THAT, is an opinion.

Conclusion-

We cannot say whether a barrier will help in all instances. But, it may be a deterrent in some cases, as nothing is foolproof. As a friend likes to say… “Let’s get busy” (when it comes to suicide prevention).

Anti-Suicide Resources:

1) National Suicide Prevention Hotline Call 24/7 1-800-273-8255

2)Hotlines listed by State – http://www.suicide.org/suicide-hotlines.html

3) 917-65-1889- http://sisfi.org/suicidetours.html

 

References:

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2015/may/06/coronado-adds-support-to-bridge-suicide-barrier/

http://www.coronadonewsca.com/opinion/you-can-help-with-suicide-prevention/article_d49062f8-033c-11e5-a232-0719767a57f5.html

http://ask.metafilter.com/108103/Witnessing-the-suicide-of-a-stranger

http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/LETHAL-BEAUTY-No-easy-death-Suicide-by-bridge-2562269.php

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2015/apr/23/count-shows-homeless-numbers-up-in-county/

San Diego’s Coronado Bridge and the City’s Recent Suicides


 Suicide is not pleasant…. nor is it a palatable topic. However, Ladyjustice has been afflicted by the apparent cluster of recent suicides occurring in the San Diego region since May 2011.  In a land promoted on postcards as “America’s Finest City” during the mid 70’s, this occurrence was and is certainly an indelible stain on any city. 

Construction on the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge was completed in 1969 at a cost of $50 million.  Coronado’s 16,000 residents traded the old ferry service for dollar tolls and easy access. 

In truth, the first fatal fall from the Coronado wasn’t a suicide… In 1972 a man forced his wife to jump from the edge….. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. 

The lives of tormented people “cuts to the quick” of the reader’s psyche and is the most compelling part of any tale.  Can anyone truly understand what drives a person to such finality?  Psychologists can reel off “red flags”, symptoms, causes and resources available.  But, in truth we have no resolutions, no quick answers.  There are outside influences.  However, this topic, usually reserved for “hushed tones”, really falls in the category of self- determination.Determination by oneself… Freedom to live (“or die”) as one chooses, or to act or decide without consulting another or others.” (Dictionary.com) Ladyjustice believes that freedom to do as one chooses is a double edged sword!  It has been sought after and fought for over centuries, in wars, during the emancipation of slaves, during the right for women to vote and many other civil rights initiatives….. up to and including the current and most savage example of lack of self-determination -that of human trafficking. Most of these accomplishments are considered milestones… and something to be proud of, having been achieved through self-determination. Suicide doesn’t fit…. It never fits. 

This author imagines that the great debate concerning civil liberties and religious beliefs will continues into infinity regarding the right to die.  However, this blog is not meant to be a philosophical debate.  Rather, it is meant to highlight a majestic conduit, an inadvertent inexplicable human byproduct of such architecture and to relate a sad and multiplying sign of our economic times. 

In May 2008, freelance writer, Randy Dotinga completed an interesting account for the San Diego Union Tribune of the bridge known as a “suicide magnet.” It was constructed in 1969 with concrete towers shaped like mission style arches featuring the world’s largest primary support beam.                       

 

 The structure rises 200 feet above the bay, to allow tall ships to pass beneath and spans a 2 mile area.  This imposing edifice is reflective of San Diego’s architecture.  It was purposely built without sidewalks and has the narrowest of emergency lanes. 

As of May 2008, 236 people perished.  The highest incidence per year occurred in 1980 (16 deaths) and 14 in 1973.   As of 2011, updated statistics were not available except to note that it is the third deadliest bridge in the United States.  (Wikipedia.org)Mr. Dotinga’s article stated that “at this year’s rate, the suicide death toll will reach 250 by the summer of 2009, just in time for the bridge’s 40th birthday. 

The number of fatalities on the Golden Gate Bridge “beats out” San Diego (1,200) according to 2005 data.  The second highest may be “a virtual tie” with the Coronado Bridge –  that of the Seattle Washington-George Washington Memorial Bridge with over 230 suicide deaths reported, depending upon the source used.   Other bridges that are noteworthy on an international scale include the Nusle Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic (300 deaths as of 2010), the Van Stadens Bridge

Near Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa (76 deaths) and the Horsney Lane Bridge near St Paul’s Cathedral. 

“America’s Finest City” (San Diego) has also seen its share of suicides from hotels, hospitals, apartment buildings, cliffs, and freeway overpasses. San Diegans have been witness to repeated debates from many factions such as: 

1)      Caltrans – the company who oversees the maintenance of the Coronado Bridge. They denied the “urban legend” that the center span of the Coronado Bay Bridge was designed to float in the event of a bombing, as reported in January, 2011.   In 2008 Caltrans appeared to show disdain and indifference for human life after a 17 year old boy lost his life in response to a plea by his father for the construction of a barrier: 

As reported by Drew Leavens, the former county chief of suicide prevention, Caltrans’s response was: “One, we don’t want to spend any money. Two, we don’t want to be sued.  Three, we don’t want to screw up the beauty of the bridge.  Four, we don’t want to screw up our maintenance.  Five, we just want the suicides to stop… or at least to slow down…” 

2)       As a “pacification/alternative” appeared- a handful of small signs with a suicide hotline and emergency phones.  As of 2008, one “antique looking black call box” remained; the majority of emergency phones were removed in 1993 to install a fifth lane to accommodate traffic going east or west. 

3)      In the late 1990’s Al Birney, the Toronto father of a schizophrenic son and mental health advocate “moved heaven and earth” to obtain the installation of a Luminous Veil after his son took his life.  See barrier photos and link:  http://www.architecture.uwaterloo.ca/faculty_projects/terri/steel/veil.html 

4)      In the 1950’s the San Diego City Council discussed installing “a net to catch jumpers” and fencing with inverted spikes at the Cabrillo Bridge built in 1915. 

5)      5)  A “simpler and cheaper” strategy- emergency phones with direct access to counselors.  New York, Tampa, and Seattle have installed various permutations of this idea.  However, this prevention strategy has its problems, in that some bridges cannot safely accommodate a safe lane for would be-jumpers to stand and call. 

6)       Another option has reduced the number of suicides. Regular patrols by the California Highway Patrol officers were based at the Coronado Bridge’s toll plaza, 24/7, monitoring video from eight or nine bridge cameras. These efforts allow quicker access to those than otherwise in which response time would be at least an hour.  

However, similar efforts in Florida at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge report suicide rates remain “fairly steady.” 

What does all of this mean?  And… are any of these measures truly effective especially in the devastating economic times of 2011? 

Psychologists say that despondent people are attracted to majestic structures.  The theory goes that jumping into the water brings a sense of returning to the womb, passing into the afterlife.  John Hopkins University professor, Kay Redfield Jamison comments that suicidal people view the world from a “paralyzed perspective” in which options are non-existent.  They cannot separate the future from the present… and the present is painful beyond solace (From her book: “Night Falls Fast Understanding Suicide.”) 

Such a description makes Ladyjustice think that these victims are so consumed with their painful life such that they can’t even contemplate a painful death. 

There is serious disagreement whether barriers are an effective preventative.  And then there are those who would separate the serious minded suicide attempts versus “just those who are crying for help.” There is still more debate among professionals, whether people deterred by a barrier go on to choose a substitute method.


The Reality…. and the Facts:

There is no fantasy to associate – Falling by suicide guarantees a horrific landing; the very few that do survive the impact, die by drowning;

As the Coronado Bridge is 200 feet tall, a person falling from this distance acquires a speed of 70 miles per hour. 

The crux of the matter appears to be whether or not others advocate for this issue.  At USCD, four students jumped from the roof of the 11 story Tioga Hall in the 1970s and 80’s.           A former Executive Director on behalf of the UCSD… states “…parents of the victims spoke up and talked to reporters. Not so for the Coronado Bridge suicide victims….. In recent years they appear to have suffered in silence without seeking public attention.”  

(***When you have a surviving family members or friends who are willing to advocate and go public with their grief, such an act makes all the difference in taking action against all matters of human deprivation.  And thus… the birth of the entire group of fine advocates, caring people and contributing writers of “Time’s Up Searching Out Solutions (SOS) for Victims of Crime…. and many, many other efforts across this country.

 

Coming Full Circle- The Newly Departed of San Diego:

 Writer Randy Dotinga began his article by relating the story of a female sailor, Case # 07-02619, and the 233rd fatality on the Coronado Bridge. Her fall upon impact did not kill her.  However, she drowned.  She was just another tag on the right ankle.  She did not make the news….

Intimate Partner Violence Rears Its Ugly Head… 

In the news as of May 2011, there had been four cases of murder-suicides in San Diego in 31 days. 

On May 24th the Chula Vista based Pimienta family of four was found dead at their home. Alfredo, the father, in his mid forties and owner of a tow truck business was experiencing financial troubles, with his business license soon to expire.  According to police, the parents left notes indicating they planned the deaths.  The father and two daughters were found in the swimming pool while the mother was located in the bathtub.  One daughter, Pricilla was about to graduate from the acclaimed San Diego High Tech High School and was preparing for college.  The youngest daughter was 9 years old. 

On May 31st, 41 year old Mary Alvarez and her two children, aged 11 and 12 were found beaten and strangled in separate bedrooms by Mary’s ex-boyfriend (who was not the children’s biological father). The man subsequently committed suicide by jumping from a Spring Valley freeway. 

On June 24, 2011,Thomas Fuchs and his two teenaged sons were found shot to death in their home in Chula Vista. The father reportedly killed his children, set their house on fire and shot himself.  Several suicide notes wee found. 

In Oceanside, Tyrone and wife Vanessa Knight were found dead whose bodies were discovered on July 5th.  The husband was the initiator.  A written suicide note was dated June 24th. 

Dr Jacqueline Campbell of John Hopkins University has reported in June 2009, that epidemiology research across 17 states, of 408 murder-suicides studied, 90% were males with 80% killing an intimate partner.  “Prior domestic violence is by fat the number one risk factor in these cases…” 

Alan Bergman Director of the American Association of Suicidology, states that such clusters are unusual… there is no data to prove that suicide is in any way contagious….  Some people who are already considering the idea, may act impulsively. 

Ladyjustice says …there is always a better way to deal with life’s problems!  Do not suffer in silence if you are suffering.  

In San Diego, contact Survivors of Suicide Loss, a support, awareness and prevention group.  (http://www.sossd.org) or your local mental heath professional.