In his more than a decade as Marin County Coroner, Ken Holmes was a tireless advocate for a “suicide barrier” on the Golden Gate Bridge – a massive steel net that would deter potential jumpers and catch those who jumped anyway.
Holmes maintained that advocacy up until the end, using his final full day on the job, Jan. 3, to release a report that said 32 people had committed suicide by jumping off the bridge in 2010, one more than 2009. The number of suicide deaths on the bridge now exceeds 1,400 since the span opened in 1937, he said.
Holmes, 68, lost out in the June 2010 election to Sheriff Robert Doyle to run the consolidated department. But although he won’t have a professional connection to the suicides committed on the Golden Gate Bridge, Holmes vows to keep fighting to make the barrier a reality.
The focal point of that work, Holmes said, will be in Washington, D.C., in an effort to identify and garner federal funding for the barrier. Holmes sits on the board of the Bridge Rail Foundation, a nonprofit organization created to see a suicide barrier through to fruition.
“That’s going to be the center of the thrust from every direction,” Holmes said of the funding hunt. “There is no maybe. I will be staying on as an advocate.”
The Golden Gate Bridge District board has backed the safety net in concept but has agreed that no bridge toll funds will be used to pay for it. The cost of the creation and installation of the net has been estimated at $45 million, and an environmental impact report (EIR), a major hurdle in making sure the project is even eligible for federal dollars, was completed in 2010.
The district expects to award a contract for the design later this month, and the design phase will take between 15 and 18 months. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has approved $5 million to pay for the design. The net would extend 20 feet below and 20 feet from the side of the span.
“We absolutely have to get the design phase done to make sure the project is shovel ready,” said Mary Currie, spokesperson for the Golden Gate Bridge District.
Holmes said he’ll make two trips to DC this spring to lobby for funding within the federal transportation bill. The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives has the foundation still sorting through the changes, particularly the loss of 18-term Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-Minnesota), the former chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that spearheads federal transit funding appropriations.
“We will be staying on the advocacy role with the other national suicide organizations,” Holmes said. “But we have pretty good support on both sides of the aisle. We’re not anticipating any direct pushback form Washington. Its just a matter of finding the money.”
Holmes said he is optimistic that the funding will be available within three years. The long-sought barrier picked up momentum after the release of The Bridge, filmmaker’s Eric Steel’s documentary of suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge. Steel and his crew spent all of 2004 filming people leaping from the bridge, capturing about two dozen people taking the fatal plunge on film.
Holmes is optimistic that the foundation and the district can keep the ball moving on the project.
“I don’t have stars on my eyes to say that we’ll see the bridge net done by 2012,” he said. “But I truly think the board will back it once the money is there.”
According to the report issued by Holmes earlier this month, the 32 suicides committed from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2010 were up one from 31 in 2009 and down three from the 34 in 2008. Of the 32 suicides in 2010, the bodies of 24 of them were recovered by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to the Marin County coroner, seven confirmed suicides in which the victim was not recovered, and one person who was recovered in San Francisco County, the coroner's office said.
An additional 75 people in 2010 were put on medical observation at hospitals after showing signs of being suicidal on the bridge.
The total number of suicide deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge are more than any other single location in the world, the report stated.
"The bridge is a national landmark, yet we have allowed these preventable deaths to continue there for over seven decades,” he said.