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Shoes represent Golden Gate Bridge suicides

Kelly Zito
San Francisco Chronicle
September 28, 2008

Shoes representing those who committed suicide by jumping... A pair of boots atop a pile of shoes represents the World... Nina Klehr (right) holds a sign in memory of friends who ...

Worn oxfords, floral flip-flops, in-line skates, sparkly high heels, fuzzy blue slippers.

Each pair of shoes placed early Saturday morning in a neat rectangular block on the green lawn of Crissy Field represented a person - teenager, artist, mother, doctor, war veteran - who has taken a fatal jump from the Golden Gate Bridge.

As gray mist underlined and then overtook the famous orange span, about 500 friends and family members gathered to commemorate those they lost to suicide and to assert that the 71-year-old span - widely thought to be the No. 1 suicide magnet in the world - should be altered to prevent further deaths.

Officials say 1,300 Golden Gate Bridge suicides are confirmed; however, they estimate there are several hundred more people whose remains have never been recovered.

Dayna Whitmer, 51, said she lost her 20-year-old son, Mattie, in November. Whitmer said Mattie had been playing video games at home with his younger brother until 1 a.m. His brother went to bed, and at about 6 a.m. Mattie drove to the bridge, where investigators later found his car. Although his remains were never found, officials are certain the young massage school student jumped from the bridge.

"In his case, I know (a suicide barrier) would have helped," said Whitmer, a medical technician who lives in Hercules. She said a later investigation of Mattie's computer showed that "the last thing he did online was look to see if any barriers were up, and then he got directions."

Whitmer, who wore a kelly green T-shirt with a picture of Mattie on the front on Saturday, celebrated her son's 21st birthday in May by doing something he might have done - "I got drunk and got a tattoo," she said, laughing. Sitting just above her heart, it shows Mattie's name over a green Celtic cross, honoring her son's recent interest in his Irish heritage.

"As much as (the bridge) is a beautiful icon and we love it, to let (suicides) continue is just senseless," Whitmer said.

Support for barrier

Many who gathered for Saturday's two-hour event - which included speakers from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and a 3-mile "Out of the Darkness" fundraising walk - support a rail, taller than the 4-foot one now in place, that would be designed to thwart suicide attempts.

While the first suicides date to just after the bridge was completed in the late 1930s, the issue has gained new prominence through recent media attention, including the 2005 documentary "The Bridge," which captured death leaps from the span. The number of suicides has also increased. On average, 24 people each year commit suicide from the bridge. So far this year, 12 people - including one man Friday night - have committed suicide jumping from the bridge, according to Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes. Last year had one of the highest tallies - 34 confirmed and two unconfirmed.

"We're never going to stop all the suicides, but if we can stop the vast majority of people who come here and jump in a momentary decision, that's important," said Holmes, a 33-year veteran of the department. "Research shows that if you can break that cycle, only for a moment, they might not do it."
Screen, net are options

Four of the six alternatives set out in July by the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District entail erecting a screened barrier that would rise 10 to 12 feet above the bridge's sidewalk surface. The other alternatives are to build nothing or to install a plastic-coated, stainless-steel net 20 feet below the bridge.

Though a recent, unscientific online poll by the district found that 75 percent of 1,600 respondents opposed any changes to the bridge, the net seemed to be the most attractive alternative.

However, the net proposal also is among the most complex: After a person jumps, officials would need to close a lane of traffic for a couple of hours to deploy two specially trained workers using a truck outfitted with a mechanical arm to pluck the jumper from the net.

The 19-member district board, composed of representatives from six Northern California counties, is expected to meet late next month to decide whether to move ahead with a suicide barrier.
Preventing suicide

The debate over changes to the Golden Gate Bridge may have provided the backdrop to Saturday's event, but most participants said more comprehensive research must be conducted to help understand the underlying causes of and possible solutions to suicide.

State Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, who attended Saturday's event to honor his niece who committed suicide, believes more study is needed on drugs that may increase depression or suicidal thoughts, particularly among children and young adults.

In 2004, Torlakson was an active supporter of Proposition 63, which funds state mental health services through a 1 percent tax on those making $1 million or more annually. With the continuing state budget crunch, Torlakson is concerned that those funds may be used in other ways.

"Suicide is a mystery," Torlakson said. "We don't know why they make that decision that moment. But we do know that there are ways to help people who are going through life crises. We need to help them because suicide touches everyone, and the loss is so empty and huge."

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