Building the ‘Bridge’

Filmmaker Eric Steel explores why people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge

Perhaps no human construction is more emblematic of its city than the Golden Gate Bridge. Spanning the 1.7-mile divide between the Marina District and the headlands of Marin County, it is San Francisco’s most recognizable landmark, attracting more than 10 million visitors each year.

For all its resplendent glory, though, there is an inescapable aura of darkness surrounding the brilliantly hued suspension bridge that has come to symbolize Herb Caen’s “cool, grey city of love” to the rest of the world.

Gladys Hansen, curator of the Museum of the City of San Francisco, has labeled the bridge “a monument to death.” Mel Blaustein, president of the Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California, concurs, calling it “the No. 1 site in the world for suicide.” Even the Rev. Jim Jones, who famously led his People’s Temple adherents on a suicide mission to Jonestown, Guyana, once derided the bridge as “a symbol of human ingenuity, technological genius, but social failure.”

Director Eric Steel, whose new documentary “The Bridge” depicts men and women plunging to their deaths from the heights of the span, agrees.

“There is a romance to the Golden Gate that promotes itself,” he said. “But the main thing about the bridge’s abnormally high suicide rate is that it’s so easy to climb over those rails. If it were harder to climb the rails, if they put up barriers, people wouldn’t be going there. It wouldn’t take away the beauty of the place, but it would save lives.”

Steel, who was drawn to the topic by a New Yorker article published in the wake of Sept. 11, is now an outspoken advocate of protective barriers on the bridge, the site of more than 1,300 suicides since its 1937 opening. Still, he is all too familiar with the reluctance of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, which has consistently shied away from making such alterations.

“The people who run that bridge are only responsible for what happens on that two-mile stretch of road,” he said. “They need to take responsibility for their railings and protect people. I understand why it’s difficult for them to take such a big step when the responsibility is so much broader than that. There is a civic obligation that we all have to take care of these people. What happens on the bridge isn’t the result of one moment of thought. It’s the life that led them to that point, and we need to intervene earlier.”

During the yearlong filming of “The Bridge,” Steel estimated that he and his crew rescued at least six would-be jumpers by contacting the police. Now, he hopes that the bridge district authority, which recently commissioned a two-year suicide deterrent study, will take the next logical step — but he’s not exactly holding his breath.

“I wish I could have faith in the bridge district authority, but I don’t,” he said. “Their strategy has been to wait out public outcry as if it were bad press. When the article in the New Yorker came out, every argument against the idea of protective barriers was effectively debunked.

“With this film, there is footage of people ending their lives on the bridge. It’s not a description anymore — it’s real,” he said. “There is incontrovertible evidence. Unfortunately for them, this film will live on forever, and it’s up to the people of San Francisco to exert pressure on them to do what’s right.”

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