As San Diego police sergeant Boyd Long stopped on the Coronado bridge to check a stalled car, he immediately noticed something was amiss. The stranded motorist stepped away rather than beckon for assistance.
"Then it dawns on me as he starts to jog. Here is someone who is going to jump." Boyd broke into a trot to keep pace, desperately trying to initiate conversation. "Hey, hey, stop for a second." The suicide suspect crawled onto the bridge's side rail, resumed jogging, tripped on a reflector, and regained his balance. Closing the distance between them, Boyd called out, "What's the problem? We'll help you," ...to no avail. Yelling an obscenity, the man took a big step.
Although that suicide attempt occurred 12 years ago, it remains so vivid in Boyd's memory, he speaks in present tense. "I see him tumbling through the air end-over-end into the darkness." Boyd heard a splash. Then, to his astonishment and relief, he heard the man cry, "Help, help."
When it opened to traffic as the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge in 1969, there were no deaths recorded for at least three years. Since 1972, 202 people have committed suicide there by jumping. In 1989 the California Assembly officially called the bridge the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, but many drivers still refer to it by the old name they see on signs. Even less well known is many more people have been talked out of jumping — more than 1000, by some estimates — than have actually jumped. A small number — at least 10 individuals -- have survived that fall, which ranges from 120 feet to 275 feet, depending on the starting point. That height compares with 220 feet for San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Survival from the Coronado bridge is attributed to such factors as shorter drops, the body's position on entering the bay, or landing in a ship's wake, which softens the water's cementlike surface.
The San Diego Harbor Police, which almost always recovers bodies from the bay, keeps the most complete records on Coronado-bridge suicides. But no agency has tracked the number of attempts there, which often result in hours-long traffic jams. Data about people jumping from freeway overpasses is also scarce, although there are occasional news reports about suicides and attempts from the Pine Valley Bridge, Interstate 805, and the Laurel Street bridge near Balboa Park. According to records at the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, about 7 or 8 people a year jump from high bridges spanning land or rivers. The California Highway Patrol, which is ultimately responsible for the Coronado bridge because it is part of State Route 75, this year began filing reports on all suicides and attempts there.
Much of the information about potential jumpers and the few who survive jumps is anecdotal. In most cases, the rescuers who help deter suicides are police officers responding to emergency calls from the California Department of Transportation, which monitors the Coronado bridge with five cameras, and from motorists who see something unusual. Boyd happened to be on a routine patrol when he detected his suicide suspect. Although the San Diego Police Department has an emergency negotiations team specially trained to handle suicide attempts, hostage scenes, and other crises, it doesn't always arrive first on the Coronado bridge. So police officers such as Boyd, who may never have taken a psychology course, must rely on their instincts to persuade troubled individuals from killing themselves.
Coronado police sergeant Jeffrey C. Hutchins estimates that, for each bridge death, 5 to 10 people are dissuaded from jumping. That would mean 30 to 60 people were talked off the Coronado bridge last year, compared with the 6 people who died. His estimate is plausible, given Hutchins saved 21 people during 1982, action that garnered him an "officer of the year" award. That same year, which Hutchins regards as an aberration, 9 people killed themselves by leaping from the Coronado bridge.
Some law-enforcement officers and transportation officials are reluctant to discuss the universal phenomenon of bridge suicides. The Golden Gate claims many more lives — an estimated 24 last year and a total of at least 311 since 1987, when the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District started keeping more detailed records. Ron Garcia, the Golden Gate's captain, agreed with Hutchins's lower estimate that 5 people are saved for every death.
Michael D. Martin, toll captain of the Coronado bridge, has personally prevented three people from jumping during his long career with Caltrans. On one occasion, when he worked as toll sergeant for the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Long Beach, Martin coaxed a pedestrian into turning around and joining him for coffee in the office, where they spent four hours talking. "You open your heart to the people who need your time and effort," Martin said, stressing that Caltrans employees — particularly toll collectors, drivers of tow trucks, and other maintenance vehicles — are often the first to encounter potential jumpers.
Gentleness is just one approach. In Coronado, Martin once tackled a woman who had ignored his pleas that she not walk on the bridge, which has no pedestrian paths. "I realized she was either going to get run over or jump off the bridge," Martin recalled of the distraught woman who had been arguing with her husband near the toll administration building.
Martin's commonly held belief that news reports inspire more suicides stems from a nine-hour closure of the Vincent Thomas Bridge during the early 1980s. A desperate young man attempting to kill himself had hitchhiked there all the way from Oklahoma after reading a newspaper article about a suicide from that particular bridge.
Coronado police officer Kevin Hirsch, who has won two awards for talking people off the Coronado bridge, said more disclosure might deter suicides. "It's an awful death. It's like hitting concrete. The water doesn't give," Hirsch said, adding that some victims actually do hit concrete, on the bridge's piers or footings. "Knowing how gruesome the death is might prevent people from jumping. Is it really worth it?" That kind of fall can maim or cripple people, too. Hirsch recalls one survivor, a 5'11" tall male, was only 5'5", after hitting the bay.