SAN FRANCISCO – Golden Gate Bridge officials voted overwhelmingly Friday to hang stainless steel nets from the sides of the world-famous span in an effort to stop people from jumping to their deaths.
After decades of discussion about a suicide barrier, the Golden Gate Transportation District's board of directors voted 14-1 in favor of the net system. They rejected several other options to prevent suicide jumps, including extending the existing four-foot railings and leaving the iconic span unchanged.
The vote, which marked a shift in the board's attitude about a barrier, was a victory for mental health experts and victims' family members, who have long argued the barrier would prevent impulsive suicides.
"I believe most people, knowing that a quick, easy, momentary thing is not available, ... will find solutions," Ken Holmes, Marin County's coroner and a supporter of the barrier, said in interview. "You'll take your medication, talk to the person who broke your heart ... tell your mom you didn't mean to wreck the car."
The graceful, rust-colored bridge — a California icon with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay — has long lured people looking to end their lives. More than 1,200 have plunged to their deaths from the span since it opened in 1937. Thirty-eight people leaped last year and 19 have jumped so far this year, according to bridge officials.
John Brooks, 52, said his daughter Casey's jump from the bridge in January was a "complete shock," because she was doing well in school and on her way to college. "There is a good chance that had a barrier been there, she'd still be here," said Brooks, who lives in nearby Tiburon.
But opponents say a barrier on the bridge will not prevent people from killing themselves. Suicidal people, they say, will find other ways to take their lives and would be better served by additional funding for mental health treatment.
None of the options before the board would have seriously marred the appearance of the landmark, according to a draft environmental impact report in July. But the report said proposals for higher railings would have a greater impact on views from the bridge than the net.
About half of the roughly 4,000 people recently surveyed by the bridge district said they favored leaving the bridge unaltered.
Mill Valley resident Clark Hinderleider said the bridge authority should not be responsible for the mental health of people using the bridge. "We should be able to help these people long before they get to the bridge," Hinderleider, 62, said after the meeting Friday.
Board members said the steel nets, which would hang 20 feet below the bridge and extend about 20 feet from each side, would prevent suicides without harming the bridge's appearance. "This is a vote ... to save lives," said board member Lynne Segal.
The bridge district debated whether to install suicide barriers in the 1970s and 1990s but did not approve any of them until now. "There has been a major shift in the attitude (on the board)," board member Tom Ammiano said in a recent interview.
Ammiano and other advocates of a barrier say emotional accounts from family members of the dead helped sway the board. And so did the 2006 film, "The Bridge," which captured people jumping from the span, said Paul Muller, a board member of The Bridge Rail Foundation.
"That film puts the horror on a world stage," said Muller, who called the movie "embarrassing" for bridge officials.
The net system, expected to cost $40 million to $50 million, still requires a final environmental review.
Board member Joanne Sanders proposed a pedestrian toll to cover the expense. But Ammiano said he has been seeking federal and state funding.
Board member James Eddie, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he was worried about the project would be funded. "I want to ensure if we build it, we're not indebting our children," he said.