Golden Gate Bridge suicides reach 1,000 and counting


San Francisco -- Michael Guss took his leap from the Golden Gate Bridge on a windy, clear January day in 1990. Ditching his bottle of lithium on the bridge's walkway, he climbed up the 3 1/2 -foot railing, balanced for a moment, then fell backward.

The 220-feet plunge took about four seconds. He hit the water with a force that has been likened to crashing into concrete.

"I pretty much passed out on the way down," says Mr. Guss, 31, a former Wall Street options trader who is now an aspiring television situation-comedy writer in Taos, N.M. "When I came up I had lost my glasses, so I had not great vision in addition to internal confusion. My survival instincts took over and I swam for the moat wall."

Collapsed lungs, a fractured neck and a crushed spleen made swimming excruciating. "I certainly was not thankful to be alive," he says.

But he was. Mr. Guss is one of 22 or 23 people who have hurled themselves off the world's No. 1 suicide spot and lived to tell about it. Most do not.

Last week, Eric Atkinson, 25, became the 1,000th known person to commit suicide off the Golden Gate since it opened in 1937. Although authorities have not recovered his body, his car was found abandoned on the bridge, and someone witnessed his leap.

His death ended a morbid countdown to the 1,000th official suicide. But countless others may have plunged from the bridge unobserved, their bodies washing out to the Pacific.

"God knows how many go by way of darkness," says Jerry Monge, a California Highway Patrol officer who collects data on Golden Gate Bridge suicides.

The bridge, a spectacular reddish expanse that crosses the mouth of San Francisco Bay, earned the dubious distinction of being the most popular suicide spot in the world mostly because other famous leaping places have installed suicide prevention barriers. The Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower and Japan's Mount Mihara smoking volcano have lost their allure as suicide landmarks because of barriers, such as high railings, according to Richard H. Seiden, an Oakland, Calif., suicidologist.

But efforts to erect similar barriers on the Golden Gate have gone nowhere. With tourism the leading industry here, there is no support for marring the vista with metal railings.

"It's a killer bridge," says Maria Martinez, whose son, Leonard, 32, jumped to his death in 1993. His body was never found.

She'd like to see a plexiglass barrier, regardless of how it makes the bridge look. "We're allowing this happen," she says.

The task of attempting to prevent jumps falls to toll takers, iron workers and bridge supervisors who scan the walkway through mounted cameras. Blue help-line telephones were installed on the bridge last summer, but have been little used.

"They tell us not to lie, but you say anything and everything," says Mr. Monge, the highway patrol officer. He has spent hours trying to talk down distraught people from the railing, offering cigarettes and sympathy.

Jackson Fung, a bridge captain, balanced himself underneath the bridge with a safety belt to talk to one suicidal man for more than three hours. "We talked about baseball," he says. "I said, 'Why don't we go have a drink?' " The man finally agreed to get down.

Bridge workers and highway patrol officers say that for every person who leaps, two are talked out of it.

Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, says she wishes people would be less interested in the 1,000th bridge jumper, and more interested in helping friends who are depressed. With 30,000 suicides each year in the United States, there are more suicides than homicides, she says.

Most of those who jump from the bridge don't live in San Francisco. They've traveled here to kill themselves, often driving across other, duller bridges to get to the famous Golden Gate.

The bridge had been open for barely three months when the first jumper, a 47-year-old bargeman named Harold B. Wobber, killed himself.

The San Francisco Public Library maintains a sad file of yellowed newspaper clippings on those who have followed. Front-page attention is reserved for the rich or famous, the oldest (87) or youngest (5), or those leaving the strangest notes. (One person left this explanation: "Absolutely no reason, except I have a toothache.")

Suicide notes left on car windshields in the parking lot of the bridge chronicle a litany of heartache: divorce, debt, AIDS, cancer and a wrenching sense of failure. One young man wrote he was jumping because he didn't get into Columbia University Law School -- only Stanford.

In 1973, 14 people vied for the distinction of becoming the 500th official suicide, including one man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "500." All 14 were dissuaded or thwarted.

But finally, Steven Houg, a 26-year-old resident of a Haight-Ashbury commune, eluded bridge workers and jumped. His note pleaded: "Do not notify my mother. She has a heart condition."

Michael Guss says his jump was impulsive. "I didn't wake up that day and say I was going to jump off the bridge," he says. He was living in San Francisco at the time, having quit his Wall Street job at the Goldman Sachs investment firm to pursue writing. In New York, he had been diagnosed with manic depression, he says, but was not taking his medication regularly. Depression plagued him.

On Jan. 26, he decided to visit a local science museum, found that closed, and wandered over to the Golden Gate Bridge nearby around noontime. He paced up and down the walkway, feeling hopeless about his prospects for a meaningful life.

After being rescued by the Coast Guard, Mr. Guss spent time in a hospital, then in a mental hospital. There he tried to kill himself again by hanging, he says. Finally, through a combination of medication, humor and holistic practices such as yoga, he began to get well.

Medication helped stabilize him, he said. One day, lying on the couch at a state mental hospital in New York, he thought of a joke. "Life in a mental hospital is pretty rough," he told himself. "People urinate and defecate and throw up in the halls. And that's just the doctors."

He was on his way back.

He looks back on his jump as a turning point that he hopes will inspire others who are feeling desperate.

"Sometimes it is hard to believe I did it and I lived," he says. "When I've been up on the bridge, it's been hard to fathom . . . I have never felt so solid and unflappable in my life."

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