[Noozhawk’s note: This is the first article in a four-day series on Cold Spring Canyon Bridge. Click here for Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen’s explanation of our series. Click here for a related slide show.]
Cold Spring Canyon Bridge is a graceful, 1,200-foot-long steel span that connects coast and valley as Highway 154 crosses San Marcos Pass in the mountains above Santa Barbara.
But its spare, slender design has helped make the bridge a dividing line, pitting preservationists against mental health advocates and law enforcement. That’s because the structure has been a destination for those seeking to end their lives, a fact both sides agree on. It’s the question of how to prevent more deaths that has the two camps battling over the bridge’s future.
Cold Spring Canyon Bridge has had a tragic history since it opened to traffic in February 1964. Just three months later, the first suicide was recorded when a young mother of four fell to her death. Since then, 53 people have leaped from the bridge, with eight in 2009 alone. The death toll has prompted a community outcry for preventative safety measures.
According to Caltrans, suicides off the bridge account for the highest concentration of fatalities for any location along the state highway system in its District 5, which includes Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties.
The controversy centers around the bridge’s existing safety rail, which runs the length of the span and sits a mere 2 feet, 7 inches above the two-lane roadway’s concrete curb. Peering over the existing railing reveals the canyon a dizzying 420 feet below, surrounded on both sides by a steep, wooded ravine. Extending this railing’s height and creating a barrier of sorts would help prevent suicides, according to those calling for such measures.
In 2009, Caltrans approved a $3 million project that would result in the addition of a 9-foot-7-inch barrier along the bridge sides. Almost half of the funds will come from federal stimulus allocations, with the remainder drawn from state monies for highway safety improvements. Construction is expected to start later this month.
Proponents also say a barrier would protect law-enforcement personnel who respond to calls of a potential suicide. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department estimates it has dispatched deputies to about 160 incidents on the bridge between 2001 and 2009, and officials say that any call that puts responders on the bridge at all is potentially dangerous.
Perhaps the most stomach-turning encounter occurred in 2006 when a sheriff’s deputy was nearly pulled over the side as she grabbed a man who had started to jump. Video taken from a patrol car’s camera shows two other deputies intervening to save the officer, whose feet had already been pulled off the ground by the man. Both the deputy and the would-be jumper were pulled back to safety.
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Dominick Palera was in charge of the deputy who risked her life in the incident.
“We’ve had people ask, ‘Why dont you just tell (the officers) all to stand back?’” Palera told Noozhawk. “We’re trained to assist people, even those who wish to harm themselves.”
Palera said the deputy made the right decision to intervene, adding that each officer must make judgment calls when talking with someone who may be trying to commit suicide.
Although he’s never responded to a call of a potential jumper, Palera has been present on the bridge while the department performs a body recovery.
“It’s not an easy feeling when you’re standing on the bridge,” he said. Combine the low railing with the high winds that can sweep through the canyon and cause the bridge to sway and “you get an uneasy feeling in your stomach,” he said.
Palera said many people have been saved over the years, although the actual figure is difficult to determine. When efforts to intervene aren’t successful, Palera said it can take a psychological toll, as he’s seen when he debriefs deputies who have dealt with such situations.
“People who are successful at saving a life, that’s a tremendous feeling,” he said. “But when things don’t go well, you live with that. You always feel like you could’ve done more.”
But the danger and trauma for law enforcement doesn’t end on top of the bridge. The sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team is responsible for descending into the canyon to retrieve the body below it.
Former Search and Rescue squad member Jon Sullivan served on the team for nearly 10 years, and estimates he’s responded to about 25 calls to recover bodies at the site. Dispatch usually receives a 9-1-1 call whenever anyone is walking on the bridge. If a jumper lands anywhere other than on Stagecoach Road below the bridge, Search and Rescue is called out to search the canyon.
All of the Search and Rescue crew members are volunteers, and they may get a call for a body recovery while working at their day jobs, like Sullivan. When he gets word of a jumper, “I think the worst thought is ‘I really hope I don’t know this person,’” he said. “It’s definitely one of the more gruesome things I’ve ever seen in my life, in that situation.”
Although Sullivan said the team works hard to not put its members in dangerous situations to recover the bodies, “the reality is it’s really rough and really steep,” he said.
When a body is located, team members will place it on a stretcher and either carry it out or raise it to the top of the bridge, which requires that the bridge be shut down but is safer for rescuers.
“That causes a huge traffic problem, so it depends a lot on the time of day and how accessible it is,” he said.
Although the recoveries are a small part of the Search and Rescue Team’s responsibilities, Sullivan said 2009 had the highest number of incidents he had encountered.
“Having seen it, I have an appreciation for how horrible it must be in one of these people’s families to get a phone call the next morning,” he said. “A lot of these people are young — late teens, 20s, 30s. It’s just sad.”
Indeed, with the majority of victims South Coast residents, it’s likely that many people know, or are related to, someone who has committed suicide from the bridge.
And with no barrier, there’s no way to limit the intent of a suicidal person, according to psychologist Lisa Firestone, an expert on suicide assessment and prevention at the nonprofit Glendon Association, 5383 Hollister Ave., Suite 140. The problem, she says, is that suicidal people are ambivalent, and with the bridge, there’s no time for them to change their minds.
“If someone jumps off our bridge, they have the intent, they do it, and there’s no going back,” she said. “Any time we can put between them and their suicide plan, the more likely they are to live.”
Firestone, along with many in the mental health community, are advocates of what is termed “means restriction,” which is the basic assumption that limiting the opportunities for a person to commit suicide will keep deaths down. Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct Bridge has had success preventing suicides since implementing its “Luminous Veil” barrier, and Firestone says the same could be true for Cold Spring Canyon Bridge, should a barrier be erected.
“It’s worked wherever they’ve done it,” she said. “It’s a very powerful intervention.”
Firestone admits that installing a barrier doesn’t deal with the underlying mental health issues, but she said she believes it can stop the problem from happening.
“Of the 29 people who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and lived, only one went on to kill himself,” she said. “We don’t get to treat people unless they’re still alive, then we have a chance.”
Firestone added that effective treatments exist for suicidal individuals.
Firestone is acutely aware of the psychological impacts that these deaths have on the community. People who have witnessed someone on the bridge and been unable to prevent the jump are often traumatized, as are unsuspecting passers-by. Firestone tells of an avid cyclist, who had lost his own daughter to suicide, who was riding his bicycle along Stagecoach Road underneath the bridge when he discovered the body of a jumper in the road.
“He stopped to offer assistance to this person lying in the road, thinking something had happened to them and he could save them,” she said. “But it was a jumper, and obviously that was traumatizing.”
Firestone has also counseled many of the families who have lost someone on the bridge, and all of those families are supportive of a barrier.
“They want their person to have lived,” she said. “They were devastated by that loss. Sometimes we need to protect people from themselves.”
“When you weigh the consequences of an individual suicide’s impact on all of the family members, to not erect a barrier to prevent that is irresponsible,” he said.
But these views are not universal. While proponents wholeheartedly support the barrier project, some opponents have problems with the historical and aesthetic impacts on the bridge as well as perceived errors committed during the procedural process. A California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit filed last year by the preservationist group, Friends of the Bridge, alleges that the project approval process deprived the public of the opportunity to comment on central elements. The group also says the draft environmental impact report didn’t include all adequate information.
“The project evokes strong emotions and deep-seated opinions concerning the appropriateness of erecting a physical barrier on this historic bridge to address the tragic social phenomenon of suicide. These issues are not the subject of this litigation,” the lawsuit states.
Friends of the Bridge, and its most outspoken member, Marc McGinnes, cite various reasons for opposing the barrier project, but the procedural process ranks highest among them. They say that is why they’ve sued Caltrans. These views, and the lawsuit, will be explored in more detail in part three of this series.
Rocklin disagrees with the argument over the bridge’s aesthetics. A barrier on the bridge would diminish the likelihood of suicides, and that is success to him.
“You may save four yet still lose one. Does that diminish the four?” he asked. “No. The beauty of the bridge is not diminished by people being safe.”
Noozhawk’s Cold Spring Canyon Bridge Series
» Click here for free suicide prevention resources that are available 24 hours a day.
» Click here for Day Three’s main story: For Barrier Opponents, There’s No Bridging This Divide.
» Click here for Day Four’s main story: Bridge Barrier Debate May Be Resolved in Span of a Month.
» Click here for a list of the various suicide prevention measures that were considered.
» Click here for a list of landmark bridges around the world employing suicide-prevention barriers.
» Leading Off: Just What Can We Say, and How? Suicide is a touchy topic for the media. Here’s what Noozhawk does, and why.