Only known person to survive plunge from Colorado Street Bridge believes angels broke her fall
By Jake Armstrong 05/19/2011
Jean Pykkonen considers herself one of the lucky ones — the only lucky one, in fact.
Seventy-four years ago this month, Pykkonen became the only person known to survive the plunge off the iconic Colorado Street Bridge.
Two men shouted for her mother, Myrtle Ward, to pull back from the edge, to spare herself and her 3-year-old daughter from the fate that waited in the winds of the Arroyo Seco 150 feet below.
Her psyche wracked by the thought of being stripped of her job in the thick of the Great Depression while the world sunk into war, Ward instead wrapped Pykkonen in a thick coat, tossed her over the bridge’s unprotected edge and then joined her in the abyss below.
But Pykkonen, a devout believer for much of her now 77 years, maintains that providence had different plans for her. Bundled in the coat, her tiny body hit a tree, which broke her fall and delivered her to the rocky bottom virtually unscathed.
“God sent his angels down there and saved me. There was no other explanation,” said Pykkonen, who now lives in Salem, Ore., and recounts her story proudly and regularly. “It was not my day to die.”
Her mother, who died in a hospital bed about three days later, would join the cast of troubled souls who would lend the concrete span — touted as the world’s longest and tallest when erected in 1913 — the infamous moniker of “Suicide Bridge.”
Money well spent
Anticipation was probably palpable when Pasadena and Los Angeles County officials in 1912 agreed to build the bridge, which was regarded as the final link in a road system that would provide the Foothills with a much-needed route to the sea.
For $200,000, the noted Kansas City bridge engineer J.A.L. Waddell was hired to complete the 1,486-foot-long, 148-foot-tall Colorado Street Bridge.
Spurred by newspaper reports cheering completion of the “way of loveliness” for pedestrians and the automobile, as the Los Angeles Times put it, a swarm of 5,000 people attended the bridge dedication ceremony Dec. 13, 1913.
Chairman R.L. Metcalf of the Pasadena City Commission dubbed it the people’s bridge on dedication day.
“… As you the people have decreed that this structure shall be erected and have entrusted the county officials and the officials of the city of Pasadena with the expenditure of certain money to raise a new way across a lovely arroyo, we are here to prove that money has been well spent,” Metcalf said, according to the Times. Two hundred cars — said to be the “greatest gathering of automobiles the city will have ever known” — carrying elected officials and other visitors then paraded across the bridge.
A miniature of the bridge, festooned with garlands, made the trip down the Rose Parade route in 1914.
The bridge’s opening was hailed as the end of the “hoodoo year,” the supposedly unlucky 1913, “with its strange and paradoxi
cal record of wonderful achievement and business and financial vicissitudes,” remarked the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 4, 1914.
For all the superstition about the accursed year on the bridge’s construction, catastrophe was minimal. Two workmen died when the top of the highest arch collapsed during construction and sent three workers, 130 tons of liquid concrete and scaffolding plummeting 150 feet. Crews struggled for five hours to free one of the workers — the only survivor — from the concrete.
But the poor health of the era, coupled with the impending financial tumult, would soon add a dark side to the great bridge’s lore, as would reports that the apparition of one of the fallen workers helped coax others over the edge.
In May 1915, a team of workers found the body of Joseph M. Roma at the bridge’s rocky bottom. An LA Times reporter dubbed it the bridge’s “blood christening.” However, Roma’s mother reportedly refused to accept that her son marked the bridge’s first suicide death.
A second death followed 10 days later when a 26-year-old Canadian man who’d long battled tuberculosis hanged himself from the span after hearing of Roma’s death. Witnesses said the third victim, a well-to-do Canadian businessman also in poor health, casually admired the bridge during a stroll before taking a running leap off it in January 1919.
While rare today, reports of suicides were regular news items in the bridge’s early days, often the top of the headlines in the Pasadena regional roundup. “Farewell, beautiful Pasadena,” the Times quoted as 70-year-old Smith Osgood’s last words in an eerily detailed story of the Highland Park resident’s self-imposed plunge in November 1919.
But it wasn’t until 15 years later that image of the Colorado Street Bridge would forever be redefined by the financial turmoil of the Great Depression, during which about 80 people reportedly committed suicide.
In April, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study examining suicide rates from 1928 to 2007 found that the rate rises and falls with the booms and busts of the economic cycle, especially among working-age people 25 to 64. Suicide rates generally rose during recession — the Great Depression, the end of the New Deal, the oil crisis in the 1970s and the 1980-82 recession — and fell during the economic expansions of World War II and the 10-year period beginning in 1991.
The highest suicide rate was recorded between 1929 and 1933 during the Great Depression, when it surged from 18 to an all-time high of 22.1, a 22 percent increase, according to the study.
“Knowing suicides increased during economic recessions and fell during expansions underscores the need for additional suicide prevention measures when the economy weakens,” said James Mercy, acting director of the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention.
Pasadena police records indicate at least seven suicides were reported at the bridge between January 2005 and April 2010, the most recent period for which statistics are available. Four suicide attempts were reported in that time, as were 13 calls for mental health assistance.
Most recently, a 42-year-old man jumped to his death on April 12, three hours after being released from a mental health center, where he was taken after police found him on the bridge following a relative’s warning that he may be suicidal.
A love so deep
One of those people was 22-year-old Myrtle Ward, who was married to an accordionist scouring for a second job in 1937, just three years after the birth of the couple’s daughter, Jean. Ward had just learned that she’d lost her job.
But on May 1 that year, the family’s financial struggles pushed Ward past her limit, and she walked onto the bridge with her daughter.
“All I vaguely remember is that she wrapped me in a big coat. She threw me over first,” Pykkonen said. “When I hit the ground, I just came crawling out of that coat, and they could hear me saying, ‘Mommy, mommy,’”
Pykkonen went to live with her grandparents in El Sereno. Though her father never told her the details surrounding her mother’s death, her grandmother told her often, so much so that it instilled in her a newfound faith.
“I think of God’s mercy. Regardless of what they said about the trees, I know he sent his angels and that’s why he kept me from being killed. That’s a long way [to fall]” she said.
Pykkonen said city officials put protective barriers along the bridge’s edge after her mother’s death.
More than a year ago, Pykkonen retired from her job as a school bus driver. She drove one of the smaller buses and during layovers would tell the children her story, which still contains a loving description of her mother.
“Somebody asked me once, Don’t you just hate your mother for having done that to you? When I think of it, I think of a woman who loved me so much she didn’t want to leave me,” Pykkonen said.