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A Safety Net Under the Golden Gate Bridge

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A view of a red bridge with safety nets.
A suicide deterrent net is seen under construction on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. The barrier at the bridge is near completion more than a decade after officials approved it. (Eric Risberg/AP Photo)

This episode discusses suicide. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

View the full episode transcript.

After decades of advocacy, a stainless steel safety net underneath the Golden Gate Bridge is nearly finished. Officials and loved ones affected by suicide hope it will save lives by deterring people from jumping.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: This episode discusses suicide. Please take care while listening. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic landmark. Also a lethal one. About 2000 people are estimated to have jumped from the bridge since 1937. And now, after decades of advocacy, a safety net meant to discourage people from jumping off is nearly finished.

Mel Blaustein: The suicide barrier works at the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. So deterrence are effective today.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: KQED health correspondent Lesley McClurg tells us about the new suicide deterrent at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Lesley McClurg: Michael James Bishop was a 28 year old who lived in San Francisco on March 28th, 2011. He woke up in the morning and he got into his gray Honda, and he drove to the Golden Gate Bridge and he scrawled out a suicide note, which basically said that he was really sad to leave the love of his life, and he hoped that she would find love elsewhere. And he thanked his mom and dad for giving him everything he ever needed.

Lesley McClurg: He said goodbye to his friends, and he left it on the passenger seat of his car and he got out. It was the first sunny day in several weeks and he leapt off the Golden Gate Bridge. A motorist saw him. It was about 9 a.m., and the Coast Guard rescued his body about a half an hour later, in the rocks below the bridge.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I know you talked with his mother. How does she describe the experience of learning about what happened to her son?

Lesley McClurg: I learned about Michael’s story from his mother, Kay James, and she lives in Moraga.

Kay James: I keep saying over and over again, he was he was so sweet. He was a very gentle young man.

Lesley McClurg: You know, he didn’t show up at work, so she spent that morning looking for him. I think she said she spent about half the day calling around to hospitals.

Kay James: Thinking that he was probably in a bicycle accident because he rode his bicycle to work.

Lesley McClurg: And then she got a call from an official in Marin.

Kay James: When I got a call from the sheriff in Marin County. I begged him to read the note to me.

Lesley McClurg: He was about to start a new job that day at an environmental fund called the Tides Foundation, which apparently he was very excited about.

Kay James: He played violin. He was in an orchestra, and I loved going to his concerts.

Lesley McClurg: He was in a solid relationship. He had a community of friends. It seemed like everything was going really well in his life. She did mention that he had a history of depression. She knew that that was a struggle of his, but suicide had never been something that he had discussed or something that, you know, a therapist or something was worried about.

Kay James: That he would kill himself, never entered my mind or any of his friends or his girlfriend. No one. It was just a total shock.

Lesley McClurg: Still to this day. She she sounds like she is completely shocked. And I think she struggled since then with a lot of grief.

Kay James: I mean, you know, it’s a never ending process. You feel like your world is coming to an end and one minute everything’s fine and then on a turn of a dime, just boom. Your world can fall apart.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, what do we know about how often this happens on the Golden Gate Bridge?

Lesley McClurg: The first suicide happened in 1937, when the bridge was built about nine months after the bridge was built, and since then, somewhere around 30 suicides a year, kind of on average. That goes up and down. The year that Michael James Bishop committed suicide, another 100 people were stopped on the bridge from doing it in that particular moment.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, we’re talking about this now because there is now a net under the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent this kind of thing from happening. How long have people been talking about building a safety net under the Golden Gate Bridge?

Lesley McClurg: It was more of an active conversation and really got legs in the early 2000, when families who had loved ones who had suicided from the bridge started telling their stories. And that’s when the Golden Gate Bridge board of directors began to really consider deterrence. And then it’s been a lengthy conversation filled with lots of opinions.

Lesley McClurg: And the major argument has been, how do you balance both a deterrent that does work and does stop people from jumping, and doesn’t deter from the kind of iconic architecture of the bridge that you really don’t see? That’s not going to be some, you know, kind of glaring addition that takes away from the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And Kay James was actually among those who were advocating for this, right?

Lesley McClurg: Absolutely. Yeah. She started going to meetings, I think, within a year of Michael’s death and telling the story of his life and of her shock, and I think it was quite therapeutic for her and other families to know that they weren’t alone.

Kay James: It’s like, really, you had a child who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. I mean, you just feel so. It’s such a weird feeling. And connecting with other people who have had similar experiences was really important.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up with the new suicide prevention that looks like and why experts believe it will save lives.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, you actually went to the bridge recently. What did it look like?

Lesley McClurg: I think they did a really good job. I think they successfully built something that is going to work.

Denis Mulligan: Welcome to the bridge. We’re in the plaza. If you look out on the bridge, you see the large platforms hanging underneath.

Lesley McClurg: I went out and met the general manager of the organization that, runs the Golden Gate Bridge. His name is DDenis Mulligan.

Denis Mulligan: But if you stand here at the south end, look out on the bridge. The net really does blend in. It’s not a strong feature on the bridge. And.

Lesley McClurg: It’s 20ft down below the bridge. So if you’re driving across the bridge, you would never see it. It blends into the architecture and that it’s stainless steel. So kind of a silver. Dark silver and that international orange. That reddish orange that is the famous color of the Golden Gate Bridge. The arms of the net are that color. And it looks kind of like really thick chain link fencing. If you did decide to jump, I was told that it would feel like a cheese grater.

Denis Mulligan: It will hurt. It is not rubber. It is not soft. It is not springy. It is stainless steel wire rope.

Lesley McClurg: And he told me the story of how it came to be. And it was clear that he is very excited.

Denis Mulligan: A lot of people said, you know, if you had built something, my child would still be alive, my loved one. While others said, don’t you dare change how the bridge looks.

Lesley McClurg: Does it feel better being the GM, just knowing that’s there?

Denis Mulligan: Anything we can do to save lives feels great.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What is the idea behind this net exactly, Lesley?

Lesley McClurg: I mean, I think twofold. If you did jump, hopefully it would save your life even if you were badly injured. But I think that the main idea is that it’s a deterrent. So if you’re standing there at the guardrail, you look down and you might pause. The data shows that if you stop someone on the bridge, there’s a good chance that they’re actually not going to go somewhere else and commit suicide.

Lesley McClurg: There was a study in 1978 by a Berkeley researcher who did follow people who had been stopped on the bridge, and even many, many years later, they were still alive. So it seems like if you are in the right place at the right time to help someone pause, you may save their life.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Do we know anything about why the Golden Gate Bridge in particular, has been such a common spot for suicides? One thing I feel like I hear a lot is that it just is such a beautiful place, and these iconic views kind of draw that.

Lesley McClurg: That is kind of the common belief that why wouldn’t you want to, you know, sort of take in a majestic view in the final moments of your life. But that the data doesn’t stack up in that way. For many, many years, a psychiatrist who worked at Saint Francis and now works at Saint Mary’s Hospital in a city named Mel Blaustein, has done a ton of research looking at why people jump off the bridge and what will work to save people.

Mel Blaustein: You know, this isn’t just facts and figures. This is real life stuff that’s happening.

Lesley McClurg: So generally people commit suicide because of accessibility. So if you don’t have a gun, if it’s not like super easy to do somewhere else, then the Golden Gate Bridge has a parking lot. All you really have to do is show up and jump.

Mel Blaustein: Bridge is the perfect target. The barriers four feet high. There’s a parking lot and the bus that takes you there. It’s easy and fast. And when I say fast, it takes four seconds. Hit the water. That’s so fast.

Lesley McClurg: And there is a story that I read in a study that one person who committed suicide from the bridge, who jumped off the bridge, left a note that said, why do you make it so easy? And so if you don’t make it so easy, then maybe you save lives.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Is this deterrent? Is this new net helping already?

Lesley McClurg: It is helping already there have been some lives saved from the bridge already. We don’t know, obviously, how many people it deters, you know. But there have been people saved from the bridge and they are confident that it will be successful. We won’t really know until there’s a tally at the end of, you know, once it’s been up for a year and it’s 95% done right now, meaning actually there isn’t any place that you can jump. But right now there’s fencing where there’s not netting and eventually there will just be netting.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I want to come back to Kay James. What did she tell you about what it means for her to know that there’s this safety net under the bridge now?

Lesley McClurg: Kay James obviously feels incredibly grateful that no other family, or hopefully very few families will go through the pain that she went through, that hopefully that the net will give those families a second chance. It haunts her to know that her son didn’t get a second chance, and if if someone would have been there to help him pause, would he still be alive today?

Lesley McClurg: She has talked to and there are a few people who lived through the jump and they attended meetings, and they say that the moment they let go of the guardrail, they regretted their decision. And so she really believes that if her son could have had a second chance, maybe he would be alive today.

Kay James: I mean, I ask that over and over again. Was he sorry? If only he would have had a second chance. And of course, with a net. You, definitely have a second chance. I learned a lot from my son. He was one of the most forgiving people. He never held a grudge. He just was such a sweetheart. I just miss him so much.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Lesley, thank you so much.

Lesley McClurg: Thank you.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis. Call or text 988. To reach the suicide and crisis. Lifeline. That was Lesley McClurg, a health correspondent for KQED.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: This 15 minute conversation with Leslie was cut down and edited by producer Maria Esquinca. Alan Montecillo is our senior editor. He scored this episode and added all the tape. Music courtesy of Audio Network and First Come Music. The Bay is a production of member supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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