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Golden Gate Bridge puts up net after decades of requests for suicide deterrents

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic landmark, also a lethal one. And a warning now - this story discusses suicide. About 2,000 people are estimated to have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge since 1937. Now, after almost two decades of planning, a safety net below the bridge is nearly complete. Lesley McClurg from member station KQED has more.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Nearly 13 years ago, Michael James Bishop left his apartment in San Francisco. He drove his gray Honda to the Golden Gate Bridge.

KAY JAMES: Early in the morning, around 9 o'clock.

MCCLURG: That's Bishop's mother, Kay James. She says her 28-year-old son sat in the parking lot and scrawled a detailed suicide note that he left on his car seat. Then he walked to the middle of the bridge and turned toward San Francisco.

JAMES: A motorist who was driving by happened to see my son go over the rail.

MCCLURG: When she got the call from the sheriff, she was shocked.

JAMES: That he would kill himself never entered my mind.

MCCLURG: Her son had a lot going for him. He was in a relationship with a woman he adored. He was a gentle soul who loved playing the violin. He was on tap to start a new job at an environmental fund. But he'd struggled with depression in the past and he was overwhelmed.

JAMES: He said, I'm so sorry. I just can't handle things.

MCCLURG: His computer history revealed that he had researched the Golden Gate Bridge. Every month, two to three people jump from it, and for decades, suicide prevention advocates have pushed for a deterrent. Now, after years of meetings and delays, their dreams are a reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES WHOOSHING)

MCCLURG: On a crisp, clear day, Denis Mulligan leans over the guardrail in the center of the bridge and points down.

DENIS MULLIGAN: So you can see a worker down there. And you see there's a lot of net all the way across the north tower.

MCCLURG: Mulligan is the general manager for the organization that oversees the bridge. The net is stainless steel, it is silver and orange, it's suspended 20 feet below the pedestrian walkway. It looks like chain-link fencing. Mulligan says it will hurt if someone jumps.

MULLIGAN: It is not rubber. It is not soft. It is not springy. It's like a giant cheese grater.

MCCLURG: The project cost $224 million to build.

MULLIGAN: It's a massive undertaking. We have over seven football fields worth of netting stretched out on the Golden Gate Bridge.

MCCLURG: He says the public didn't want the net to detract from the bridge's beauty, and it was designed to be minimal.

MULLIGAN: The net really does blend in. It's not a strong feature on the bridge.

MCCLURG: This stunning location is commonly thought to be one reason why people jump from here, but Mel Blaustein says the view is not the draw. He's a psychiatrist at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco. He says people do it because it's accessible and the guardrails are low.

MEL BLAUSTEIN: There's a parking lot and there's a bus that takes you there. And it's easy and fast. And when I say fast, it takes four seconds to hit the water.

MCCLURG: The net is intended to make people rethink their decision. A UC Berkeley researcher followed people after they had been stopped on the bridge during a suicide attempt. The vast majority did not go on to die by suicide somewhere else, even years later. Blaustein says deterrents work. He points to other places where barriers have saved lives.

BLAUSTEIN: The Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. So deterrents are effective.

MCCLURG: Thirteen years ago, Kay James wished a net would have deterred her son Michael. She has talked to people who survived suicide attempts at the Golden Gate. They told her they regretted their decision the minute they let go of the guardrail.

JAMES: And that's really hard for me because I think, oh, if only he would have had a second chance. And of course, with a net, you definitely have a second chance.

MCCLURG: She's grateful other families will have that second chance.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg.

KELLY: And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - just those three numbers, 988.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lesley McClurg