Every two weeks, on average, someone jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. It is the world’s leading suicide location. In the eighties, workers at a local lumberyard formed "the Golden Gate Leapers Association" — a sports pool in which bets were placed on which day of the week someone would jump. At least twelve hundred people have been seen jumping or have been found in the water since the bridge opened, in 1937, including Roy Raymond, the founder of Victoria’s Secret, in 1993, and Duane Garrett, a Democratic fund-raiser and a friend of Al Gore’s, in 1995. The actual toll is probably considerably higher, swelled by legions of the stealthy, who sneak onto the bridge after the walkway closes at sundown and are carried to sea with the neap tide. Many jumpers wrap suicide notes in plastic and tuck them into their pockets. "Survival of the fittest. Adios—unfit," one seventy-year-old man said in his valedictory; another wrote, "Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache."
There is a fatal grandeur to the place. Like Paul Alarab, who lived and worked in the East Bay, several people have crossed the Bay Bridge to jump from the Golden Gate; there is no record of anyone traversing the Golden Gate to leap from its unlovely sister bridge. Dr. Richard Seiden, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health and the leading researcher on suicide at the bridge, has written that studies reveal "a commonly held attitude that romanticizes suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge in such terms as aesthetically pleasing and beautiful, while regarding a Bay Bridge suicide as tacky."
Jumpers tend to idealize what will happen after they step off the bridge. "Suicidal people have transformation fantasies and are prone to magical thinking, like children and psychotics," Dr. Lanny Berman, the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, says. "Jumpers are drawn to the Golden Gate because they believe it’s a gateway to another place. They think that life will slow down in those final seconds, and then they’ll hit the water cleanly, like a high diver."
In the four-second fall from the bridge, survivors say, time does seem to slow. On her way down in 1979, Ann McGuire said to herself, "I must be about to hit," three times. But the impact is not clean: the coroner’s usual verdict, suicide caused by "multiple blunt-force injuries," euphemizes the devastation. Many people don’t look down first, and so those who jump from the north end of the bridge hit the land instead of the water they saw farther out. Jumpers who hit the water do so at about seventy-five miles an hour and with a force of fifteen thousand pounds per square inch. Eighty-five per cent of them suffer broken ribs, which rip inward and tear through the spleen, the lungs, and the heart. Vertebrae snap, and the liver often ruptures. "It’s as if someone took an eggbeater to the organs of the body and ground everything up," Ron Wilton, a Coast Guard officer, once observed.
Those who survive the impact usually die soon afterward. If they go straight in, they plunge so deeply into the water—which reaches a depth of three hundred and fifty feet—that they drown. (The rare survivors always hit feet first, and at a slight angle.) A number of bodies become trapped in the eddies stirred by the bridge’s massive stone piers, and sometimes wash up as far away as the Farallon Islands, about thirty miles off. These corpses suffer from "severe marine predation" — shark attacks and, particularly, the attentions of crabs, which feed on the eyeballs first, then the loose flesh of the cheeks. Already this year, two bodies have vanished entirely.