SAN FRANCISCO - San Francisco's iconic Golden Gate Bridge moved a big step closer to getting an oft-debated suicide barrier after bridge officials on Friday approved a $76 million funding package for a net system that would prevent people from jumping to their deaths.
The bridge district's board of directors voted unanimously in favour of the funding for a steel suicide net, which includes $20 million in bridge toll revenue. Federal money will provide the bulk of the remaining funding, though the state is also pledging $7 million.
A tearful Dan Barks, of Napa, who lost his son, Donovan, to suicide on the bridge in 2008, said after the vote that he was almost speechless.
"A lot of people have done so much incredible work to get this accomplished," he said.
After the vote, he rose from his knees and shared a tearful embrace with Sue Story of Rocklin, whose son Jacob jumped off the bridge in 2010.
"We did it, Dan! We did it! It's no longer the Bridge of Death anymore," she said.
At least some of the money still requires additional approval. The bridge's board, however, has now taken its final step in adopting the net.
"The tragedy of today is that we can't go back in time, we can't save ... the people who jumped off the bridge. But the good thing, with this vote today, we can vote in their memory," board member Janet Reilly said. "We will save many lives who have followed in their footsteps and that's what so extraordinary about today."
The Golden Gate Bridge, with its sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, has long been a destination for people seeking to end their lives. Since it opened in 1937, more than 1,400 people have plunged to their deaths, including a record 46 suicides last year, officials said.
Officials have been discussing a suicide barrier on the bridge for decades. The bridge's board voted in 2008 to install a stainless steel net, rejecting other options, including raising the 4-foot-high railings and leaving the iconic span unchanged.
Two years later, they certified the final environmental impact report for the net, which would stretch about 20 feet wide on each side of the span. Officials say it will not mar the landmark bridge's appearance.
But funding for the project remained a major obstacle.
A significant hurdle was overcome two years ago when President Barack Obama signed into law a bill making safety barriers and nets eligible for federal funds.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California in a statement Friday praised the bridge's board and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who has been a staunch supporter of a barrier.
"The Golden Gate Bridge is a source of immense pride to San Francisco, but for too many families in our community, it has also been a place of pain," Peloisi said. "A suicide prevention barrier offers a critical second chance for troubled men and women acting on often impulsive suicidal thoughts. Together, we can ensure this magnificent landmark stands as a faithful companion for all San Franciscans, awing and inspiring visitors for generations to come."
Most jumpers suffer a grisly death, with massive internal injuries, broken bones and skull fractures. Some die from internal bleeding. Others drown.
Kevin Hines, who miraculously survived his suicide attempt after jumping off the structure in 2000 at age 19, urged the board before its vote to "not let one more family sit in eternal pain, in perpetuity because of politics."
He later broke down after the unanimous vote approving the funding.
"I feel like a giant weight has been lifted off my shoulders, all of our shoulders. I feel free," Hines said. "I feel a sense of hope that I haven't had in a very long time. It's not over yet, we will be here until that net is raised and no more people die."
Richard Gamboa of Sacramento, whose son, Kyle was among the 46 bridge suicides last year, said while Friday's vote is momentous, he's not done fighting.
"It's not over for me. I'm going to keep coming here and urging them to get the barrier done. When I go on that bridge and look down and see that net there, then I will be at peace," Gamboa said.
John Brooks, whose 17-year-old daughter, Casey, jumped from the rust-colored span in 2008, told the board Friday that he hopes that some measure is taken before the net is constructed to provide some kind of safety to everybody.
"What I really don't want to see between now and the time it is done is more deaths," Brooks said. "That will be a cruel irony."
Board members and San Francisco supervisors David Campos and London Breed both agreed that the sooner the barrier is built, the better.
"We need to build it as quickly as we can," Campos said.
Bidding on the job is expected to start next year, with completion of construction expected in 2018.
© Coast Reporter