SAN FRANCISCO – A teary-eyed Dana Barks was almost speechless after officials for the San Francisco's iconic Golden Gate Bridge approved a $76 million funding package for a suicide barrier that could prevent people from jumping to their deaths.
The bridge district's board of directors voted unanimously in favor Friday for the funding of a steel suicide net. The motion for the historic vote came from board member and former bridge district director John Moylan, whose grandson, Sean Moylan, jumped off the bridge to his death earlier this month.
Seconds after the vote, the tears from many people in the standing-room-only crowd were followed by shouts of joy.
"A lot of people have done so much incredible work to get this accomplished," said Barks of Napa, who lost his son, Donovan, to suicide on the bridge in 2008.
After the vote, Barks rose from his knees and shared an emotional embrace with Sue Story of Rocklin, whose son Jacob jumped off the bridge in 2010.
"We did it!" Story said. "It's no longer the Bridge of Death anymore."
Funding sources for the suicide barrier include $20 million from the bridge, mostly coming from toll revenue, $49 million in federal money and $7 million from the state. Some of the money still requires additional approval.
But the bridge's board has now taken its final step in adopting the net.
"The tragedy of today is that we can't go back in time, we can't save ... the people who jumped off the bridge. But the good thing, with this vote today, we can vote in their memory," board member Janet Reilly said. "We will save many lives who have followed in their footsteps — and that's what so extraordinary about today."
The Golden Gate Bridge, with its sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, has long been a destination for people seeking to end their lives. Since the structure opened in 1937, officials say more than 1,400 people have plunged to their deaths, including a record 46 suicides last year. Supporters of the suicide barrier estimate that more than 1,600 have died jumping off the bridge.
Most jumpers suffer a grisly death, with massive internal injuries, broken bones and skull fractures. Some die from internal bleeding. Others drown.
Officials have discussed a suicide barrier on the bridge for decades. In 2008, the bridge's board voted to install a stainless steel net, rejecting other options, including raising the 4-foot-high railings and leaving the world-renown span unchanged.
Two years later, they certified the final environmental impact report for the net, which would stretch about 20 feet wide on each side of the span. Officials say it will not mar the landmark bridge's appearance.
But funding for the project remained a major obstacle.
A significant hurdle was overcome two years ago when President Barack Obama signed into law a bill making safety barriers and nets eligible for federal funds.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California in a statement Friday praised the bridge's board and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who has been a staunch advocate for a barrier.
"The Golden Gate Bridge is a source of immense pride to San Francisco, but for too many families in our community, it has also been a place of pain," Pelosi said. "A suicide prevention barrier offers a critical second chance for troubled men and women acting on often impulsive suicidal thoughts. Together, we can ensure this magnificent landmark stands as a faithful companion for all San Franciscans, awing and inspiring visitors for generations to come."
Kevin Hines, who miraculously survived his suicide attempt after jumping off the structure in 2000 at age 19, urged the board before its vote to "not let one more family sit in eternal pain in perpetuity because of politics."
He later broke down after the unanimous vote approving the funding.
"I feel like a giant weight has been lifted off my shoulders, all of our shoulders. I feel free," Hines said. "I feel a sense of hope that I haven't had in a very long time. It's not over yet. We will be here until that net is raised and no more people die."
Bidding on the job is expected to start next year, with completion of construction expected in 2018.