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Construction to begin on Golden Gate Bridge suicide deterrent system

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Construction is set to begin on the suicide deterrent system for the Golden Gate Bridge, seen in San Francisco, Calif., April 13, 2017. (James Chan/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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In September 2000, San Francisco native Kevin Hines stood at the Golden Gate Bridge and contemplated suicide.

The millisecond after his hands left the rail, he felt regret. He didn’t want to die.

Hines hit the water and, somehow, survived.

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“A sea lion kept me afloat until a Coast Guard boat could find me,” he told the San Francisco Examiner.

Many others don’t survive.

In 2000, 16 people died by suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge, and in 2016, there were 39 deaths by suicide there.

Nearly 17 years after his life-changing event, Hines was on hand Thursday with a bevy of elected officials to commemorate the beginning of construction on the Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Deterrent System.

By 2021, the bridge will see stainless steel wire rope extending 20 feet out on each side of the bridge and 20 feet below the sidewalk.

Early on, some criticized the project for changing the look of the iconic bridge. The project’s bidding process was delayed by months, and as recently as December the project faced further delays when a rival bidder, American Bridge Company, threatened to file a complaint about the winning bidders, Shimmick Construction Company, Inc./Danny’s Construction Company LLC, a Joint Venture.

ABC withdrew that complaint. Still, the project cost ballooned to more than double the initial estimate, to $211 million.

Lawmakers and officials scrambled to raise funds. Now, $70 million will come from Caltrans; $65 million from the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District; $68.5 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission; and $7 million from state mental health funds.

That money was worth it, said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, at the commemoration where at least 100 people were packed under a temporarily arranged tent just before the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

“People would say, ‘Isn’t that a lot of money for a net?’” she told the crowd.

”No,” she said, “that’s not a lot of money — for a life.”

Members of the labor industry, still wearing their hard hats, joined politicians at the event. Others throughout the crowd wore T-shirts reading “1,558,” the number of confirmed suicides at the bridge as of 2011.

Those players all had a hand in bringing the suicide deterrent to fruition. At one point, Dick Grosboll, the former president of the Golden Gate Bridge district’s Board of Directors, asked family members of those who died by suicide at the bridge to stand.

“We would not be here today if not for you,” Grosboll said.

One of those, Kymberlyrenee Gamboa, stood to the podium to speak. Her 18-year-old son Kyle died by suicide on the bridge in 2013, and she and her husband have fought for the deterrent ever since.

The work on the net will officially begin in May, said Golden Gate Bridge Chief Engineer Ewa Bauer.

The first few months people will see fencing rise at the bridge, because during prior construction projects people on the sidewalks “on accident and on purpose” threw things at the workers.

It will take about 40 days for workers to erect that fencing, she said. In the meantime, parts for the deterrent will be designed and fabricated in contractor offices, carefully measured and designed for each rivet of the bridge.

Echoes of the bridge’s original construction in the early 1900s are partly responsible for the ballooning cost of the suicide deterrent, Bauer said.

“During original construction, they used rivets” as opposed to modern bolts, Bauer said. “It’s not as precise … the rivet had to be heated, and the hot rivet was installed in the hole and struck with special tools. Very often, there was a little offset, and the rivet itself after cooled and was a little crooked.”

That means much more careful, particular measurements of the bridge must be taken than in a modern bridge project, which may have standard spacing throughout, she said.

Installation of the suicide deterrent will begin by mid-2018, she said, and completion is expected by 2021.

In the meantime, Golden Gate Bridge district staff and police continue to save lives: In 2016 they successfully intervened with 184 people contemplating suicide, according to district data.

Denis Mulligan, executive director of the Golden Gate Bridge district, said district staff “profile” people to prevent the worst. For those on the bridge by themselves and not jogging or taking pictures, “we talk to you.”

But district data shows those people are skewing younger every day. In 2007, the number of people under 34 dying or attempting to die by suicide at the bridge was 56. By 2014, that number was 91, more than any other age group.

“That takes a toll on our staff,” Mulligan said. “They have children. It causes an awakening.”

Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt in 2000, visits the spot for the first time following the suicide deterrent ceremony at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Calif., April 13, 2017 (James Chan/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The passion to save lives could be seen in most attending the ceremony, but also in Hines, the Golden Gate Bridge survivor. He now travels the world, telling his story to inspire others to live.

On Thursday, Hines spoke the Examiner moments before he was set to revisit the place where his life nearly ended.

“Sixteen years ago, I walked across that bridge with one thought in mind: That I was useless, that I had no value, that I was a burden to everyone who loved me,” he said.

Now, “I’m going to walk across that bridge, I’m going to say a prayer to all the people who died there, and I’m going to remember them.”

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