Fewer than three months after the iconic Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, a man named Harold Wobber walked to its halfway point. It was a foggy August day, and Wobber, a World War I veteran, walked halfway across with a tourist he had just met. “This is where I get off,” Wobber said, and suddenly leaped from the four-foot-high railing, according to the anti-suicide book “The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge.”
He became the first known person to die by suicide at the international orange feat of engineering. But as bridge officials noted Thursday, it is not an easy death. Hitting the water is much like landing on concrete: the person’s bones break, and as they float, unable to move, they drown.
Now, roughly eighty-one years and seven months after Wobber’s leap, after as many as 1,700 reported deaths, the Golden Gate Bridge can claim a milestone towards saving lives: The first complete section of the suicide deterrent has been constructed, and sits now in a Richmond, CA construction yard.
This first section is special in another way, however — it’s a test. A mockup. A facsimile.
The structure is roughly 300 feet long and 20 feet wide, with struts and netting constructed from American-made steel, but it will never be attached to the Golden Gate Bridge itself. Instead, workers from AECOM/Danny’s joint construction venture use the life-size recreation to climb across, tools in hand, to practice installing the true suicide net,
That fascimile is important, Golden Gate Bridge District General Manager Denis Mulligan said, because it’s a lot safer to fall 15 feet to the concrete of Richmond, CA than to fall 240 feet into San Francisco’s briny bay.
Thursday, officials from the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District gave reporters from across the Bay Area their first glimpse of the net.
“Many people marvel at its majesty,” bridge district president Sabrina Hernandez told reporters. “It’s a marvel.”
However, “People — too many people’s — lives have been changed due to the loss of a loved one on the bridge.”
Also present to view the suicide net were the surviving family of Kyle Gamboa, 18, who lost his life in 2013 to self-harm on the Golden Gate Bridge. Kimberlyrenee Gamboa, Manuel Gamboa Jr., Kyle’s parents, and Manuel Gamboa III, his brother, stood and held photos of Kyle as the May rain swelled.
Only Kimberlyrenee spoke, noting the devastation and heart-ache the family felt after Kyle’s death.
The family has attended every Golden Gate District public meeting — held monthly — since Kyle’s death in 2013, doggedly urging officials to finish the net. Imploring them. Reminding them of the human cost of slowness, or failure, to do so.
“After all these years, to feel and touch a net that will save lives is emotional and surreal,” Kimberlyrenee said.
Still, the $211 million project has a ways to go.
Construction began in 2018, with some struts already protruding from 20-feet below the roadway. Nighttime lane closures from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. are scheduled Mondays through Thursdays, and 10 p.m. through 7 a.m. Friday-Saturdays through January 2021, when completion is expected to wrap up.
In a bridge district committee meeting Thursday morning, Chief Financial Officer Joe Wire said the suicide deterrent will “be a big chunk” of the district’s entire capital budget through 2020, and become the focus of the entire district, drawing heavily on its financial reserves — though there are plans to replenish those reserves.
It will all be worth it, Mulligan told reporters Thursday.
“There is no more noble task for government than saving lives,” he said.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), or San Francisco’s crisis line at (415)-781-0500.
This story has been corrected to reflect it is 240 feet from the roadway to the bay, not 500.