Community pushes for barriers to stop suicides on Coronado Bridge

Small wooden crosses dotted the lawn outside the Coronado library, reminders of the hundreds of people who have died jumping off the iconic bridge that connects the city to San Diego. The people who put the crosses there were making a point: Enough is enough.

It’s a message that seems to be getting through.

Inside the library, Caltrans — which owns and maintains the bridge — was holding an open house to show the public examples of suicide-prevention barriers in other places: Santa Barbara, San Francisco and Auckland, New Zealand. Community members walked around, asked questions and filled out forms to give their feedback.

“I really hope they will put something up there,” said Chuck Leek, whose 23-year-old son, Chris, killed himself at the bridge last year. “They have to make it so it isn’t so easy for people to go over the side.”

The Thursday night gathering in Coronado, and another the night before in Barrio Logan, were part of a feasibility study Caltrans is doing. It will investigate “best practices” at other bridges and determine what options might work here.

The study is expected to be completed next spring. If a barrier is deemed feasible, the project would then face environmental and funding hurdles before any construction could begin.

Opened in 1969, the San Diego-Coronado Bridge arches 2.1 miles across the bay, is used by 90,000 cars daily and has become one of the region’s most iconic structures. It is also the deadliest.

The first suicide there was in the early 1970s. It’s unclear how many have died since, because various agencies that respond to the deaths sometimes have conflicting statistics. The Bridge Collaborative for Suicide Prevention, a grass-roots group formed in Coronado in late 2014, puts the total at about 400.

Some community members have been trying for decades to get a barrier erected. In the mid-1980s, after the 100th suicide was reported, a coalition of churches in Coronado hosted meetings but got nowhere with government officials.

Caltrans balked at the costs and decided instead to install signs urging people to call a crisis line for counseling. Coronado’s then-mayor, Pat Callahan, said: “Barriers would destroy the beauty of the bridge.”

Callahan also said that “people intent on committing suicide will do it elsewhere if they don’t do it there” — a common objection to barriers, but one that has been disputed in various studies. For example, a 2013 University of Melbourne report that evaluated the effectiveness of barriers on bridges in New Zealand, Britain, Washington, D.C., Maine, Switzerland and Canada found an 86% reduction in suicides at the various sites, and a 28% decrease in jumping fatalities overall in the surrounding cities.

Coronado’s current mayor, Richard Bailey, supports erecting a barrier, not just because of its potential to save lives but because it could halt the bridge closures that occur whenever emergency crews respond to a potential suicide.

Last year, the bridge had to be shut down 35 times, Bailey said. That inconveniences thousands of motorists and can have ripple effects through workplaces, retail establishments and families.

“It is time for a solution,” Bailey said.

Laurie Berman, Caltrans’ district director for San Diego and Imperial counties, said she thinks it hasn’t been a priority in part because suicide prevention “isn’t your typical transportation project.”

Lately, however, Caltrans staff “has been seeing the impacts [suicides and suicide attempts] have on daily operations,” Berman said, “and they decided it makes sense to take a closer look and at least see what’s feasible.”

During Thursday’s open house at the Coronado library, dozens of people looked at poster boards containing photos and information about barriers in other cities.

One of the displays was of the inward-tilting, unclimbable fencing installed for $3.2 million on the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge in Santa Barbara County in 2012. That 1,200-foot-long steel arch bridge built over a gorge on Highway 154 had been the site of more than 50 suicides. It no longer attracts jumpers.

Another display highlighted nets being installed on the 1.7-mile-long Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where more than 1,600 people have committed suicide since 1937. The nets will be 20 feet below the roadway and extend out over the water 20 feet. Completion of the $200-million project is expected in 2021.

Several people at the open house said they knew someone who had jumped from the Coronado bridge, which is about 200 feet tall at its highest point.

Susan Portillo’s son, Adam, 19, killed himself in 2011.

“I think a barrier would have stopped him,” she said. “He was on his way to work and for some reason that was the day.”

john.wilkens@sduniontribune.com

Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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