When Angels Saved Her : Only Known Survivor of ‘Suicide Bridge’ Relives the Fateful Day
Myrtle Ward was young, beautiful and troubled in 1937. At 22, she was fretting over losing her job at a downtown Los Angeles cafeteria and despondent about the bleak outlook for the world and her family in that Depression year.
Ward’s husband, Clarence, a sporadically employed musician, had joined the federal Works Progress Administration to supplement his income from playing one-night stands.
He was not at home on the morning of May 1, when Myrtle Ward took their daughter, 3-year-old Jean, on a drive from their house on Van Horne Avenue in the El Sereno district of Los Angeles to nearby Pasadena.
She parked her car near the picturesque Colorado Street Bridge on the west side of town. The concrete arch span had been described as the longest and highest bridge in the Southwest, a “marvel of modern engineering.”
A little before 9 a.m., she turned her back to the sun and walked west with her daughter about 100 feet on the bridge to an alcove containing a granite seat. Then, impervious to the screaming protests from two eyewitnesses, she picked up Jean and tossed the child over the side. A few heartbeats later, Ward joined her daughter, 143 feet below, on the bottom of the Arroyo Seco.
Ward died about two hours later at Pasadena’s Huntington Memorial Hospital. But, miraculously, little Jean survived. Branches and limbs of trees near the bridge slowed her limp body before impact.
The two shrieking witnesses rushed to the bottom of the dry river bed.
Jean, with an identification note pinned on her coat, was on her hands and knees, dazed, about eight feet from her mother. The little girl was crying, “Mommy, Mommy!” as she tried to crawl to her mother’s side.
Of the more 100 people who have used the bridge in suicide attempts, Jean is the only known survivor. And her ordeal undoubtedly saved others. Public shock over the incident caused steps to be taken to end the worst string of leaps from what was then known as “Suicide Bridge.”
She attributes her survival to divine intervention.
“God sent his angels and saved me,” said Jean, who was reared by her paternal grandmother, Eva Maxwell Ward Duncan, near the house on Van Horne Avenue.
She still lives in El Sereno with her husband, retired postman Louis Pykkonen, and one of their two daughters, Heidi, 19. Their other daughter, Lisa, 27, of Pasadena, gave birth to the Pykkonens’ first grandchild, Jason, on July 4--the same day Jean was born 59 years before.
Pykkonen bears no apparent psychological scars from her experience. She says she never needed counseling and remembers little of the event.
“I’ve had no problems that I know of (as a result of the tragedy),” Pykkonen said. “My grandmother knew that my mom was upset, and she prayed for her. I have a vague recollection of my mom putting a coat around me, and I can vaguely remember being in a hospital bed.”
Pykkonen, who graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1952, is teaches elementary school at Covenant Faith Center in Northridge, which is also her place of worship. Her father, Bill, also attended that church until he died of heart failure in 1966.
Bill Ward had remarried in 1944. His second wife, Nelly Messenger, is in a retirement home. They had no children. The “musician by profession,” as Ward was described in newspaper accounts of the tragedy, became a masonry worker, and later worked for the Los Angeles Pie Co.
“My father’s nerve went bad (after the tragedy),” Pykkonen said. “He’d pick up the accordion and play it for hours just for therapy.”
Pykkonen does not blame her mother, who, she said, was overwhelmed by the feeling that a great tragedy was about to plague the world.
“The world was pretty bad at that time,” she said. “My mother lost all hope. Her faith had been in God. She was in depression. . . . She lost her job.”
Reflecting on why her mother would also attempt to kill her, Pykkonen said: “She didn’t want to leave me. It wasn’t rational, but she did it out of love. That’s the way I see it.”
Frank Jameson, a Pasadena Police Department psychologist who has talked down about 15 would-be jumpers from the bridge, speculates that Ward “could have had one of two feelings” for including her daughter in her leap from the bridge.
“Maybe she didn’t want to leave her daughter in a situation where no one would be there for her. You’re saving the child from 22 years of hell just like the 22 years of hell that you’ve had. Or, it’s an anger statement. It could have been something as simple as depriving the father the presence of the child. ‘Not only am I going to jump, but, in case that’s not enough, I’m going to take my daughter, and then you really will be devastated.’ ”
Jameson added that all suicides, whether public or private, have three things in common: The victims are all completely overwhelmed, angry and desperate. As David Theberge, director of crisis intervention center Contact Pasadena, says: Consequently, “they are led to a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
“It’s kind of an eerie thing to drive by that bridge,” said Pykkonen’s elder daughter, Lisa. “I try to imagine what was going through my grandma’s mind. To do that at such a young age just doesn’t make sense. My mother was a breech baby, and my aunt always said that my grandmother was never the same afterwards. Maybe she was trying to get back at my mother. Maybe she felt that my grandfather wasn’t paying attention to her, and maybe she thought that he was cheating on her.”
Whatever Myrtle Ward’s reason, during the Depression, the Colorado Street bridge seemed to have an irresistible attraction for troubled souls. Nine people jumped to their deaths from it in 1933, followed by 10 in 1934, 12 in 1935, nine in 1936, and, 10 in 1937, including Myrtle Ward.
Two months after her jump, the Crown City Fence Co., at a cost of $7,500, erected a 7 1/2-foot wire mesh barrier topped with barbed wire. There wouldn’t be another suicide from the bridge for two years, and never again were there so many in a single year.
So happy were the townsfolk of Pasadena with the fence that on the first anniversary of the Ward tragedy, a troupe of amateur actors gathered on the bridge to re-enact the scene, sans free fall, calling attention to the virtues of the fence.
Although the fence can be scaled by a determined person, its presence on the bridge has saved lives, Jameson says, by cutting down the degree of spontaneity for potential victims.
Even so, nothing is foolproof. Five more people jumped from the bridge during World War II. Since then, there has been a suicide every few years. The most recent was in March, 1991, when Deborah Clowes, 52, of Anaheim plummeted from the bridge, four months after the structure was closed for repairs and restoration. Apparently, she was despondent over a divorce and money matters.
A $27.3-million face lift on the bridge, a registered national historic place, is scheduled to be finished sometime in the spring. And an iron fence will be standing guard outside each walkway.
As part of a reopening ceremony, Sue Mossman of Pasadena Heritage says her organization plans to throw a “bridge party,” a fete complete with mimes, musicians, food and libation.
Jean Louise Ward Pykkonen says she’d like to be there.
“There have been times when I wondered why (God) spared me,” Pykkonen said. “Had I gone to heaven, I wouldn’t have grown up to know the joy of his salvation. The bridge is a monument to the glory of God.”