Mother Trying to Find Witness to Son's Bay Bridge Suicide
Ezekiel Steffens, left, with his mother, Bonnie Szumski, in a 2012 photo. (Courtesy: Bonnie Szumski)
Bonnie Szumski wants more than anything right now to find the last person who spoke to her son before he took his own life.
Her son, Ezekiel Steffens, 33, who ran a popular Mission District flower shop, jumped from the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge on July 16 after experiencing severe mental distress for several weeks. All Szumski knows of his last morning is that he ate at a Taco Bell in Oakland, near where he lived. A restaurant receipt was found in his car.
And then he was on the bridge. Steffens pulled to the shoulder in the San Francisco-bound lanes and climbed over a railing as if preparing to jump. Many citybound commuters witnessed the scene. At least two stopped.
Szumski says one of those, identified by the California Highway Patrol only as "a bald man," apparently spoke to her son for several minutes. At one point, he offered to come over and help Steffens climb back over the railing to safety. Szumski says her son told the man, "If you do that, I'll jump."
While the unidentified bald man spoke to Steffens, a CHP officer alerted by 911 calls responded to the scene. The officer reportedly crossed traffic lanes toward Steffens, waving his arms. The officer told Szumski later that he "locked eyes" with Steffens. At that moment the young man leaped into the Bay, was picked up by a CHP boat that happened to be in the area, and was immediately pronounced dead. He left no message of any kind.
The officer told Szumski he never talked to the bald man, who left the scene immediately after Steffens jumped. Szumski, who lives in San Diego County, says she would very much like to find the man.
"I just want to talk to that man, to thank him, for one thing, for trying to help my son," Szumski says, then continues:
"But also -- if my son had said anything, because like I said, he didn't leave a note. ... I know my son made a choice to end his life, and I know there was probably nothing anyone could do to stop it, but I'm just hoping he said something, because I didn't get to talk to him about it. I didn't get a chance to ask him about this, what he was thinking about this, what was happening. Maybe he said a few things to this man that would help me somehow. I don't know whether it would or could."
Szumski says her son's suicide came after several weeks of severe emotional distress that had prompted her to bring him from San Francisco to her home in Poway.
"He had clearly had a mental breakdown," Szumski says. He imagined that people were following him and became fearful of returning to his Oakland home. "He had opened his little flower shop, and he had been working really long days, and I thought [his mental state] was partly due to exhaustion, so I had brought him home" to Poway, in San Diego County. He stayed for about three weeks.
Steffens returned to Northern California on Friday, July 11, five days before his death. Szumski, who says she tried to arrange treatment for her son both in San Diego County and in the Bay Area, remained concerned about his condition after he returned to the Bay Area and spoke to him daily, twice on the day before he committed suicide. She says both of their conversations that day included a discussion about next steps in finding treatment.
"I called 23 psychiatrists, and ironically, each one was full or they couldn't see him or whatever," Szumski says. "And they all said the same thing -- unless he was a threat to himself or others, that he couldn't access emergency services. If he'd just told me at any time, 'I want to kill myself,' I could have gotten him help."
Szumski is heartbreakingly frank about the grief and torment she and other family members are suffering in the wake of the tragedy.
"I blame myself for not keeping him here, for not getting him the help he needed," Szumski says. "I think about the many things I should have done. I should have gotten him into a psych unit, done something, done anything but let him go home."
She says her son's death has plunged her into what she calls "a deep spiritual crisis."
"This is what happens when your child decides to take his life," Szumski says. "It's terrible and haunting."
She suggests she found a small measure of relief in visiting San Francisco after her son's death, hearing from the many people he had touched in his life.
"A woman stopped by just to tell me that he made something beautiful of the entire street with his kindness, generosity and beautiful little shop," Szumski says. "... One woman at the flower mart who he bought vases from told me that 'God swooped him up, put him on his lap and said, ‘He’s mine.’ Because Ezekiel was someone God put here -- he just was God-sent. Anyone who knew him, knew that.”
And now Bonnie Szumski is hoping that somewhere out there, the last person who encountered her son alive can tell her something about his final moments. If you've got any clue about the identity of the "bald man" who stopped on the Bay Bridge to try to aid Ezekiel Steffens, email us at the address in my profile (below), and we'll put you in touch with her.