Suicide Magnet

Suicide Magnet

Since it was constructed 39 years ago, 236 have leapt to their death from the Coronado Bridge.

This is the first entry in a two-part series.

Thursday, May 1, 2008 | By the numbers, case No. 07-02619 was the 233rd person to commit suicide from the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge.

On a cool, misty early morning last fall, she stopped her vehicle in the westbound lanes, opened the door and went to the bridge’s northern edge. She leaped over the 34-inch railing without hesitation, according to a witness who called 911 on his cell phone.

The woman, a Navy sailor, hit the San Diego Bay at a speed faster than cars are supposed to go on the bridge.

The devastating injuries she sustained from the impact with the water did not kill her. Instead, she drowned in the bay. 

The county Medical Examiner’s Office put an identification bracelet on her right ankle, gave her a case number and noted her place of death as “San Diego Bay, N. of Pylon 19.” She did not make the news.

And so it goes at what is one of the deadliest “suicide bridges” in the United States.

In the Coronado Bridge’s 39-year history, 236 people — including three so far this year — have died in suicidal falls from the two-mile-long roadway. That’s one of the highest suicide tolls of any bridge in North America, almost certainly placing it in the top five. 

In Seattle, San Francisco and Santa Barbara, government officials are exploring ways to prevent suicides from their own deadly bridges. But not here, where the number of bridge suicides has topped the combined death toll from the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre, the PSA airplane crash in North Park and the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe.

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The Coronado Bridge’s honeymoon from death lasted for just three years.

Built for $50 million, it opened for business in 1969 amid plenty of hoopla. The $1 tolls for westbound drivers were annoying, to be sure, and many of Coronado’s 16,000 residents were perfectly fine with the old ferry service across the bay, thank you very much. But the sleek bridge sure was something.

Nobody had ever built anything quite like it, with concrete towers shaped like mission-style arches to reflect San Diego’s heritage and the world’s largest continuous box girder hiding its inner support structure. At 200 feet above the bay, its height allows ships to pass beneath.

The “span of blue steel … arches across the bay and clasps Coronado in the grip of modernity,” gushed The New York Times.

The bridge, prime postcard fodder, soon became an emblem of what came to be known as America’s Finest City, a moniker that came after a scandal convinced Republicans to move their 1972 national convention elsewhere.

Built without sidewalks, the Coronado Bridge didn’t seem likely to attract people bent on self destruction. They couldn’t walk onto the bridge — at least legally — and there was no place to park other than five-foot wide emergency lanes. (Update: The shoulders were removed in 1993 when Caltrans installed a moveable barrier system to allow officials to adjust the number of lanes in each direction depending on traffic flow.)

The first fatal fall from the bridge wasn’t a suicide. It came in 1972 when a man forced his wife to jump from the edge; he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

A year later, in 1973, a 22-year-old sailor jumped to his death. Five died that year, and 14 people, almost all men, jumped to their deaths in 1974.

The parade of death continued. With the exception of one suicide-free year in 1984, at least one person has fatally jumped from the bridge each year since 1973.

The record — 16 deaths — came in 1980. Last year, the number was six.

Only about a dozen people have survived, including a car-theft suspect who jumped while fleeing police last New Year’s Eve. A police dog went down with him and died.

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Spectacular structures tend to attract the despondent, and they’ve done so for quite a long time. Hundreds of people jumped from the Eiffel Tower before barriers were installed, and it took just a couple years for the first person to leap from the Brooklyn Bridge in the 19th century.

Now, a number of bridges across the U.S. have reputations as suicide magnets.

Landmark bridges “are majestic, and they tend to be very noble-looking, almost spectacular creations,” said Gary Spielmann, former chief of suicide prevention for New York state. According to him, they may inspire “the sense that your final statement is a noble one, a heroic final exit from this world.”

Psychologists who study suicide victims suggest that the water below many bridges may add to their appeal, Spielmann said. “There’s a theory people have that jumping into water brings a sense of returning to the womb, going from life on land to life in the water, the feeling of passing from one realm to the next. It’s a fantasy.”

The reality is that suicide by falling guarantees a horrific landing.

“There’s nothing at all glamorous about jumping off a bridge,” said Dr. Jim Dunford, medical director of the city of San Diego. “It’s not a swan song, diving into heaven. You really get a disfiguring, traumatic and dramatic death.”

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A body falling from the 200-foot-tall Coronado Bridge can reach more than 70 miles per hour, and the impact with the water itself can kill. A review of the autopsy reports of dozens of recent Coronado Bridge suicides found that most died of what pathologists call blunt-force injuries: broken bones, lacerated organs, and internal bleeding.

In some cases, however, jumpers survive the impact of their falls only to drown.

Few people want to even think about a painful death, even as an escape from a painful life. But the suicidal are often willing to direct intense violence at themselves and actually seek out excruciating ways of ending their lives, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“The anger and self hatred that go into suicide are part of the reason for the appeal of these methods,” the foundation writes in its recommendations for how the media covers suicides.

Suicidal people view the world from a paralyzed perspective, explains John Hopkins University professor and bestselling author Kay Redfield Jamison in her book “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.”

“(T)heir thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain,” she writes. “The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace.”

After each fatal fall from the bridge, investigators from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office contact relatives or friends and ask questions about the dead person. In almost every case, they hear about depression, emotional crisis and mental breakdown:

  • A 2003 victim from the South Bay community of Nestor was laid off from his job in the mortgage industry. He told his family that he “was having some problems and wanted to move to a sober-living home.” He then headed to the bridge.
  • Another 2003 victim, a young man who had suffered depression from the age of 14, jumped from the bridge after unsuccessfully trying to kill himself on a freeway a year earlier. That time, he broke his pelvis and lost a lung. A pathologist found signs of the old injuries during an autopsy.
  • Also in 2003, a tourist from Texas found a dead body floating near a park at the Embarcadero. The 41-year-old victim, whose truck was found on the bridge, had been prescribed a number of psychiatric drugs and was said to be stressed about his job and a condo purchase.

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Records from the last several years show that more than 300 people kill themselves each year in San Diego County. Of those, about 20 or 25 jump to their deaths, falling from hotels, hospitals, apartment buildings, cliffs. And bridges.

Four people have killed themselves in falls from the Cabrillo Bridge in Balboa Park over the past decade. Nine fell to their deaths from the striking Pine Valley Bridge, part of Interstate 8 in East County. Dozens more chose to jump from freeway overpasses.

But the numbers at the Coronado Bridge set it apart. No other local structure has anywhere near such a high death rate from fatal leaps.

On a national level, some reporters have called Coronado Bridge the second deadliest suicide bridge in the nation. It’s unclear whether it actually holds that dubious honor since no one officially tracks bridge suicides on a national level, but it’s not out of the question.

The Golden Gate Bridge, with more than 1,250 suicides since it was completed in 1935, is by far the top “suicide magnet” in North America. Elsewhere, more than 200 have jumped to their deaths from Seattle’s infamous “Suicide Bridge” spanning a ship canal, and at least 140 have killed themselves by falling from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida since 1987.

The suicide death toll at the Coronado Bridge — 236 — is higher. And it’s still growing.

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Medical Examiner’s Office case No. 07-02619, the female sailor, was the last bridge suicide in 2007. Her father said her family wasn’t aware she had any mental-health problems, and she gave no indication of troubles in a call the night before her death.

“There were no e-mails no letters, no explanation,” said the father, who asked that this story not identify her. “We want her to have some dignity in her life rather than the awful thing, the tragedy of her death.”

The next one came on a Friday afternoon, Jan. 4 of this year, when a 39-year-old Bonita man drove his truck to the bridge and jumped off. 

A divorced father of three, he had been drinking heavily and was said to be despondent over financial problems.

“There are multisystem blunt force injuries …,” the autopsy report states. “The injuries are consistent with the history as known and are non-survivable.”

He was medical examiner’s case No. 08-20 and Coronado Bridge suicide No. 234. Two others have jumped to their deaths so far this year.

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.

FRIDAY: Two decades have passed and dozens have died since anyone gave much thought to suicide prevention on the Coronado Bridge. Meanwhile, other cities are embracing suicide barriers, emergency phones and 24-hour patrols.

Clarification: The text regarding the history of emergency lanes on the bridge has been updated since it was originally published to reflect a story revision that was lost in transit. Emergency lanes on the bridge disappeared in 1993.

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. He welcomes your feedback and stories. Click here to contact him directly with your thoughts or ideas. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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