View Full Version : Room of Grief: Pleas for Golden Gate Bridge suicide barrier

02-25-2005, 06:53 AM
Mourners' emotional plea for bridge suicide barrier

ROOM OF GRIEF: Family, friends beseech bridge board in a funereal procession

Joan Ryan

Friday, February 25, 2005

Patrick Fitzgerald pulled his trademark beret off his head before he walked through the door of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District boardroom Thursday morning. He wore a tie. In his bony, teenaged arm, he cradled a binder of signed petitions calling for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. He had come to deliver the petitions to the district board in honor of his best friend, a fellow senior at the French American International School who killed himself Feb. 1 by jumping off the bridge.

I had written Sunday about Patrick and Jonathan. I went to Thursday's board meeting to see if one boy's story mattered, to see what 18-year-old Jonathan Zablotny's death counted for. I wondered if Patrick's grief, and the grief of Mary and Ray Zablotny -- sitting in the first row of the boardroom Thursday -- might push the debate about the suicide barrier from aesthetics and finances to empty bedrooms and 4 a.m. crying jags and the thick, awful smell of a living room crowded with too many flower arrangements.

What I found Thursday was a room filled with Patrick Fitzgeralds and Mary and Ray Zablotnys. The board, seated around a vast, oblong table, listened all morning to individual stories of suicide. So many people showed up with photos of their loved ones that some had to wait in the hallway. One by one, they stood or sat at the end of the table and spoke, a funeral procession of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, boyfriends and girlfriends, teachers and classmates. Knowing the statistics -- 18-20 suicides a year from the bridge, around 1,300 since it opened -- still doesn't prepare you for the weight of the grief in a room packed with people who have endured such pain and loss. You wonder how a person hearing these stories could ever view the bridge the same way again.

There was Kevin Hines, who broke his back in a jump four years ago, and there was his father, too, a San Francisco banker in a navy suit. "My world came to a screeching halt in 2000,'' he said, "when I had to deal with the broken body of my son.''

There was Sarah Cherny, whose 33-year-old boyfriend dismounted from his bicycle just before 11 a.m. on a Tuesday in October, leaned his bike against the railing, hung his helmet on the handlebars and jumped. Just like that. No hesitation, according to two witnesses. Phillip Holsten had been valedictorian of his Modesto high school, had attended UCSF medical school and had completed his residency at Stanford. He was a doctor at California Pacific Medical Center and, as far as his girlfriend knew, was taking a ride into the Marin Headlands on his day off.

"Phil gave no warning signs,'' Cherny told the board. She is a doctor at Stanford, where the two met. "He had already paid for a trip to Guatemala that he was taking with me and my parents. I found out later he had been planning a surprise birthday party for me in two weeks. This was an impulse, a terrible impulse. If there was a barrier, I would have seen him at home that night instead of on a metal gurney after his autopsy.''

Cherny's father, Robert, is a history professor at San Francisco State and a member of the San Francisco Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board. He told the district board he expected Holsten to be the father of his grandchildren.

"You may think it can never happen to you,'' he said. "I am here to tell you that it can. ... I sometimes get to vote on saving buildings. You get to vote on saving lives.''

Terry and Mike Oxford drove up from Sunnyvale to tell the board about their middle child, 26-year-old Jennifer, a Web page designer having problems in her marriage. She jumped last Friday. She had stopped her car at midspan and left it running.

"I want you to put a face to those numbers,'' Terry Oxford said, wiping tears from her eyes. Her husband handed to each board member an invitation to his daughter's memorial service tomorrow in Salinas. "She chose to jump, but it was too easy. The railing is only 4 1/2 feet tall -- I have a grandson taller than that. Please, I don't want one more family to go through this pain. I can't believe this (suicide barrier) has been on the table for so long.''

Renee Milligan's daughter, Marissa Imrie, was just 14 when she took a taxi from her high school in Santa Rosa to the bridge. Milligan later found a journal in which her daughter wrote that she felt fat, ugly and boring.

"I don't know how I missed it,'' Milligan told the board. "All I have to give now is to honor my daughter. I want to do as much as I can to protect other kids.''

Patrick Fitzgerald didn't speak to the board. He is a writer, not a talker. He sat in the back row, against the wall, his right knee bobbing as he listened to the stories that seemed so similar to his. Patrick's older sister spoke about Jonathan, and so did Jonathan's mother, Mary.

"My son wasn't in his right mind when he jumped,'' she said in a thin voice. "(The suicide barrier) is as much for the friends and family left behind with their anger, grief and guilt. What kind of monster would stand here and tell me aesthetics are more important than my son's life?''

In the back row, a few seats from Patrick, sat Joan Quan, whose son was a classmate of Patrick and Jonathan. She came to tell a different story. She was driving back into the city from Marin on Tuesday when she noticed police gathered in a knot on the east side of the bridge. Traffic on that side was backed up. As she looked, she saw a woman climb over the rail and disappear. It was just weeks after Jonathan's suicide in nearly the same spot. Quan wondered if she had imagined the woman jumping. It seemed too unreal.

"I think I just saw a person jump off the bridge,'' she told the toll taker.

"Sweetie,'' the toll taker replied, "it happens all the time.''

link (http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/02/25/MNGUCBGUTI1.DTL)

02-27-2005, 01:33 PM
I dont live in cali but have been to san fran numerous times. This is sad for the families, but to want the city to pay for a barrier is ridiculus imo. These individuals would have found another way if this were the case. How can we suicide proof everything. The real issue is with our society. Look at suicide rates around the world and you will see it has more to due with lifestyles than with opportunities.

02-28-2005, 08:09 AM
These people are unrealistic. Do they honestly believe that their friends and family members would have rejected suicide if they couldn't have the infamy of doing it off the golden gate?


Keith Talent
03-01-2005, 11:34 AM
Sad stories. I've walked across that bridge twice on trips about 20 years apart and I have to admit I felt a little wobbly in the legs looking out at all that blue sky and water, with nothing but that low fence in between ... and I wasn't the least bit depressed, either.

There was an interesting story on this in, I think, the New Yorker, a few months back. They even talked to a handful of people who survived the leap. They'd say they remembered thinking, when they were in midair falling away from the rail: "What the hell have I just done?"

Maybe the numbers would go down some if they boosted the fence even a foot, to stop the impulse jumps ... but not so high a normal-sized person couldn't look over the Bay directly.

Face it, though, some folks are determined and no fence would stop em. The fence at the Empire State Bldg. observatory is about dozen feet tall and curls inward at the top, but a couple of people still hoist themselves over it every year.

03-02-2005, 09:12 AM
These people are unrealistic. Do they honestly believe that their friends and family members would have rejected suicide if they couldn't have the infamy of doing it off the golden gate? <hr /></blockquote>

Depends on how you view suicidal tendencies. For most people it's a temporary condition that passes with time when their lives improve sufficiently. For others it's gonna happen no matter what anyone tries to do to stop it.

The Golden Gate Bridge draws suicidal folks like moths to a flame. There have been numerous instances where a jumper has miraculously survived the fall. I do not know of a single one of those survivors who returned for a second try...

Back in the late Sixties the 'jump count' had passed 495 and was approaching 500. As days went by the SF Chronicle kept track of the escalating attempts. People were actually vying to be number 500 off the bridge. As luck would have it, number 500 was someone I had grown up with and a good friend. He pinned a note on his shirt before he jumped with '#500' on it. Since then more than 800 additional suicides have taken place off the bridge. The current count and amount exceeds 1300.

It's very hard to make an accurate guess as to how many lives might be saved if the GGB was made jump proof. However, I do believe that if it were possible to track such things over time those numbers would be impressive.


03-02-2005, 12:38 PM
<blockquote><font class="small">Quote SnakebyteXX:</font><hr> People were actually vying to be number 500 off the bridge. As luck would have it, number 500 was someone I had grown up with and a good friend. He pinned a note on his shirt before he jumped with '#500' on it. Snake <hr /></blockquote>

<font color="blue"> Respectfully, Snakebyte. If someone is really vying to be the 500th jumper off the GGB they probably ought to get out of the gene pool anyway.

I can see depression, health issues and many other reasons a person would contemplate taking their life, but for the "Glory" of making a gruesome number, that's just crazy.....

Maybe there's no altruistic way to kill yourself but wouldn't they be beeter served to go to a hospital, pin an organ donor card to their chest and slit their throat on a gurney? or maybe volunteer to work in the Chernobyl clean-up or something more positive than making your death a number. Gee...</font color>