San Francisco approves funding for Golden Gate bridge suicide barrier

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge is seen surrounded by fog (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO — At moments, it glows like a pathway to heaven, floating almost dreamlike through the thick layer of fog that frequently blankets the city. Even on sunny days, the Golden Gate Bridge is a wonder, its graceful art deco towers gleaming a deep orange-red against the shimmering turquoise water of the San Francisco Bay.

But when John Moylan looked at the bridge, he also saw a darker side to its majestic beauty. In the 27 years since he was first appointed to the 19-member board that oversees the Golden Gate, Moylan had also come to see the tragedy of the bridge. It came in the form of countless stories he’d heard from grieving families whose loved ones had leapt to their deaths from the iconic span.

Moylan didn’t blame the bridge. But he did understand the anguish. He had lost a grandnephew to suicide. And the memory of that pain alone had convinced him that if something could be done to save lives, it should be done. So as the numbers of the dead ticked higher and higher — a record 46 suicides in 2013 — Moylan pursued the often lonely fight of trying to convince his colleagues and the public of the need for a suicide barrier on the bridge. Friday's passing of a $76 million bill to build such a barrier marks a bittersweet victory for Moylan.

He first raised the issue three decades ago, during his early days on the board in the late 1980s, encountering strong opposition from many of his colleagues and even the public. Some said a barrier wouldn’t stop those hell-bent on dying. Others complained it would undermine the beautiful simplicity of the bridge. That didn’t stop Moylan, who repeatedly raised the idea of a barrier over the years.

“Suicide is everyone’s problem, and we have to do something about it,” Moylan said at a board meeting last November. “My family has been touched by it, and I’ll tell you what, it tears a family apart.”

John Moylan, on the board of directors for the Golden Gate district, passing by the not yet completed succulent garden near the Round House on the south side of Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, Calif., on Monday, January 9, 2012. ( Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis)

Moylan’s words would turn out to be hauntingly prophetic. On June 5, less than two weeks after Moylan issued another public plea for a suicide barrier, a young man walked toward the center of the bridge on what was a sunny Thursday afternoon. Around 4:20 p.m., according to witnesses, he crawled over the bridge’s four-foot barrier and jumped to his death. His body was recovered by the Coast Guard and taken to the Marin County morgue. The man’s name would have gone unpublicized by the Bay Area media, which stopped daily coverage of the suicides long ago, had it not been for his recognizable last name.

He was Sean Moylan, the 27-year-old grandson of John Moylan, who had grown up literally in the shadow of his grandfather as he rose to become an increasingly influential guardian of the bridge. The two had seen each other just days before, at a family lunch on the previous Sunday. They had talked and laughed and hugged. To the elder Moylan, nothing had seemed amiss.

According to unofficial accounts by supporters of a suicide barrier who keep track of the grim statistics, Sean Moylan was at least the 15th person to jump and die off the Golden Gate so far this year. At least 1,600 people have committed suicide on this bridge since it opened in 1937.

Over the years, the Golden Gate has become widely regarded as the world’s leading destination for suicide — a dubious distinction for a bridge that was regarded by its designers as a vibrant symbol of American ingenuity and strength.

Perhaps most tragic about Sean Moylan’s death is that it came just weeks before what many believe could be a historic breakthrough in the efforts to curb suicides on the bridge. On Friday, the Golden Gate’s board, including Sean’s grandfather, voted unanimously to move forward on a suicide-prevention system after years of an emotional back-and-forth on a wrenching subject that many people in the Bay Area had once hoped to ignore.

A view of the San Francisco Bay from the walkway on the Golden Gate Bridge (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For decades, the board had explored various options aimed at stopping the jumpers, from a 9-foot tall barbwire fence to a laser beam that would zap people if they climbed over the edge — something that was ultimately ruled out as too dangerous. The one idea that kept coming up again and again was a net — which more than four decades later is what bridge officials have finally settled on.

On Friday, the board approved a $76 million plan to install a steel safety net that would extend from the bridge 20 feet below and 20 feet from the side of its span. Made of stainless steel cable painted the same color as the bridge, the net would collapse slightly if someone were to fall in, making it difficult for a person to exit without assistance. But many hope the mere presence of a net will dissuade people from jumping at all. They point to evidence of how barriers have worked at other locations once known as suicide hot spots, like the Harbour Bridge in Sydney.

“Scientific evidence is overwhelming that having a deterrent reduces suicide because it is so often an impulse feeling for many people,” said Eve Meyer, head of San Francisco Suicide Prevention and an advocate of a barrier for 25 years. “It’s been proven that if you stop someone, most won’t try again. ... This is about taking away the ability to act on that suicidal impulse.”

Even as the board made history, tragedy loomed over Friday’s meeting. It was the first public appearance of John Moylan, who had been in seclusion since his grandson’s death. And the meeting came on what was already a painful day for him and his family. After the vote, Moylan crossed the Golden Gate into Marin County, where he was scheduled to attend his grandson's funeral that afternoon.

Don't do It is written on the rail of Golden Gate Bridge on March 12, 2014 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The debate over what to do about suicides at the Golden Gate has been raging almost since the ribbons were cut on the roadway linking San Francisco to Marin County. When it opened in 1937, the bridge’s designers saw it as an example of man triumphing over nature, an engineering feat built to withstand ferocious winds and earthquakes that was as beautiful as it was strong. But its engineers seemingly failed to anticipate the bridge’s insatiable allure to people who wanted to die and how easy its design made that happen.

By the time Moylan joined the board in 1987, hundreds of people had already jumped to their deaths, climbing over the bridge’s 4-foot rail and leaping the 220 feet to the treacherous water below. Countless websites touted the bridge as an easy and quick place to die — grisly reviews that attracted people from all over the world who came to the bridge to live out their final moments.

They were young and old, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and even a few who were known to the public before they died, like Roy Raymond, the founder of Victoria’s Secret, who jumped off the bridge in 1993. In 1945, a 5-year-old girl jumped to her death on the orders of her father, who followed her a few minutes later.

A couple stops to look at the view of San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In a way, one can almost see the pull for someone despondent enough to commit suicide. The Golden Gate has been hailed as one of the most beautiful places in the world, and its 1.7-mile span offers a spectacular view of the skyline of San Francisco, the rolling hills of the Marin Headlands, Alcatraz Island and, in the far distance, the gleaming silver of the Bay Bridge — a structure as old as the Golden Gate but not nearly as beloved.

But the beauty of the surroundings conceals what by all accounts is a horrific death. Ken Holmes, a retired Marin County coroner who handled hundreds of suicide victims, likened the impact of someone falling from the bridge to driving a car into a brick wall at full speed. Descending at an estimated 70 mph, the impact of the body on the water almost immediately snaps the ribs, which fold inward and slice the heart, the lungs and the spleen. The vertebrae shatter, the kidneys explode. If by some miracle someone survives the fall — and only a handful have — the body often plunges so deep into the water that it is carried away by the furious current and drowns. Sometimes the bodies are swept toward the Pacfiic Ocean and never recovered.

“It’s a horrible, horrible way to die,” said Holmes, who began advocating for a barrier when he noticed not only the number of suicides inching up but also that the victims were getting younger and coming from places farther and farther away.

A sign is posted alerting people to use an emergency crisis counseling phone if in distress on the Golden Gate Bridge (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

One woman, he recalled, flew directly to San Francisco from London, got in a cab at the airport and headed straight for the bridge — not even stopping for a last dinner. She was identified by her fingerprints. She didn’t have a note — though most of the bodies Holmes handled usually did, some carefully wrapped inside a plastic Ziploc bag and stuffed into a pocket.

“I have read hundreds of suicide notes and talked to families all over the world, and that’s the true tragedy: The lives that have been ruined by people who have died there,” Holmes said. “I love the bridge, but it’s hard not to recognize it as the harbinger of some of the worst sadness I have ever been exposed to ... all because it is so easy to die there.”

The idea of installing a suicide net dates back almost five decades, when the bridge’s board of directors was first pressed to do something about the suicides. But over the years, the plan just languished, dismissed by board members who didn’t consider the suicides to be a crisis or their responsibility.

“I was laughed at when I first talked to them about a barrier,” Meyer recalled. “There was just this immense resistance to any kind of intervention, that these people were mentally ill and nothing could be done to save them.”

But that sentiment has slowly changed over time. In 2003, the New Yorker’s Tad Friend wrote a long piece about suicides at the Golden Gate — in what was effectively the first national glimpse into the growing crisis. That was followed by several documentaries, including “The Bridge,” in which filmmaker Eric Steel trained his camera on the massive structure for a full year, capturing dozens of suicides on film and then following up to find out the backstory of the victims and the effect on their families

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Building of the Golden Gate Bridge. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Perhaps the biggest sea change among the board members came as they began to hear more from the families of those who died — as grieving mothers and fathers began to show up at every monthly meeting with pictures of the people they’d loved who had ended their lives on the bridge.

For Dietrich Stroeh, a longtime bridge official who once was an outspoken opponent of a barrier, it was tragedy that changed his mind. One of his closest friends, who was terminally ill, jumped from the bridge and killed himself about five years ago. Stroeh was stunned by what his friend had done and the effect it had on the man’s family — and on him. At the funeral, Stroeh recalled that they began to play “Danny Boy,” an old Irish song about death, and he began to sob and had to leave the service.

“I couldn’t handle it,” Stroeh said. “I didn’t know how emotional it was to lose someone like that in that way until that moment. ... I guess that’s what really changed my mind.”

And that’s what made Friday’s meeting even more emotional. Though board members have heard again and again from families affected by the suicides over the years, few have been touched personally by such a tragedy. And in Moylan’s case, it has now hit one of their own.

According to several friends and associates of John Moylan, the death of his grandson has ripped his family apart —with the survivors anguished over the questions of why Sean Moylan ended his life and why he chose the Golden Gate Bridge, a monument so closely associated with his grandfather, who was appointed to the board just months after Sean was born.

A friendly presence who loved to play pickup basketball and drink “green juice,” Sean Moylan also suffered from depression and “had a rough three or four years,” one family friend said. In February, he was walking his dog, Rosie, along a highway in Winston, Oregon, when he let go of the dog’s leash and walked directly into the path of an oncoming commercial truck.

A rose lies near the spot where Sean Moylan jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Moylan survived, but he spent several weeks in intensive care with serious head wounds and internal injuries, including broken ribs and the loss of his spleen. In their report, the police described Moylan as a “transient,” though his family strongly rejected that characterization. He returned to his hometown of Novato, Calif., a little over a month later, and those who knew him said that Moylan in recent weeks appeared to be his old self again.

“I had seen him a few days before, and he was smiling and seemed in really good spirits,” a family friend said. “There was nothing that even hinted he was thinking of something like this. I don’t think anybody even worried that this could happen. They thought the worst was over.”

John Moylan did not respond to requests for comment, but in an interview with the Marin Independent Journal, he declined to blame the bridge or its lack of a suicide barrier for the death of his grandson.

“The poor kid was a very troubled young man,” Moylan said. “He was generous and good natured, but he just had that demon in there. There is no blame in this at all. It’s not the bridge’s fault. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just that he was a very troubled young man. He had a problem, and that’s it.”

But that hasn’t stopped Moylan from blaming himself. According to a friend, he’s not just a “grieving grandfather” but has been anguished by the question of whether he could have done more as a governing official of a bridge that he has dedicated so much of his life to but has now taken away so much.

On Friday, Moylan was one of the last people to arrive at the meeting ahead of the historic vote. As he entered in the conference room held in an administration building in the shadow of the bridge, his fellow board members and dozens of relatives of those who had died at the bridge applauded him. "Glad to be here," Moylan said, with a slight smile, as an assistant put a box of tissues on the table near his seat.

A half hour later, after testimony from mothers and fathers and sisters and friends who had lost someone at the bridge, Moylan took the microphone and spoke of his long effort to stop the suicides and of the loss many families had felt--including his. His voice, at times, was barely audible.

"Losing a family member," he said, pausing, "There is nothing worse in my opinion. Nothing... Suicide tears families apart."

Moylan then formally introduced the resolution to fund the suicide barrier and smiled as each of his fellow board members voted in the affirmative. After the motion was announced as unanimously approved,  relatives of those who died jumped to their feet, sobbing and cheering. "Finally!" a mother yelled.

At the front of the room, Moylan quietly slipped out, headed to his grandson's funeral.