The Pasadena City Council unanimously agreed on Monday to enter into a contract for “suicide mitigation enhancements” on the Colorado Street Bridge.
According to a staff report, the San Francisco-based architectural firm Donald McDonald will design a vertical barrier on the iconic bridge for under $550,000.
“Donald MacDonaId, founding principal architect of the firm has worked on several well-known bridges that implemented mitigation efforts such as the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge in Charleston, (South Carolina), and Ironworkers Memorial Bridge in Vancouver, (British Columbia),” according to the staff report.
Members of the firm came before the council’s Public Safety Committee in April. At that meeting, PSC members instructed staff to streamline the project’s design and scope of work. Local officials have been searching for ways to prevent jumpers while preserving the historic bridge’s treasured aesthetics.
The project presented to the council on Monday, May 20, costs $200,000 less than the original projection and cuts 10 months off the projected timeline for building a suicide deterrent system.
Time to Act
More than 150 people have jumped from the 106-year-old bridge since the Great Depression, according to city officials, with more than 30 of those deaths reported since 2006. Most of those jumps occurred from the alcoves along the bridge’s walkways, where access over the existing metal railings is easier.
In April, a passerby found the body of a man beneath the bridge. His shoes were located on top of the structure. So far, he is the only known jumper this year.
Three people jumped from the bridge in 2018, and eight people fell to their deaths in 2017.
Later that year, temporary suicide-prevention fencing was placed in the bridge’s alcoves. In September 2018, the situation took on added urgency after police spent 13 hours successfully talking a jumper down during Labor Day weekend.
After that encounter, City Manager Steve Mermell exercised his authority to make an emergency purchase and spent $295,932 on fencing to span both sides of the 1,400-foot-long bridge.
“We can’t wait for another year while we grind our way through the approval process and funding process. We need to do something,” Mermell said at the time. “It’s an emergency and we need to intervene right now.”
In 1921, the then-eight-year-old bridge was prominently featured in the Charlie Chaplin film “The Kid.” In the movie, Chaplin’s famous Tramp character successfully saves a young woman before she could jump to her death from the bridge.
Soon after the film screened, people jumping off the bridge became something of a common occurrence. During the Great Depression, which began in October 1929 after the stock market crash devastated the nation’s economy and left millions out of work, 79 people jumped from the bridge.
The Depression formally ended in 1939, and it was during that period people began calling the 100-foot-tall structure “Suicide Bridge,” a grim moniker scorned by city officials throughout the decades.
Temporary fencing was first installed after 12 people jumped to their death in 2015 and 2016. One of those occurred in late October 2015, when police spent seven hours attempting to talk 40-year-old actor Sam Sarpong out of jumping. Sarpong had gained fame as a model and appeared in the TV shows “My So-Called Life,” “Veronica Mars,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “24.” Prior to his death, he completed filming in an episode of “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.” But in spite of all the talking, he still jumped.
Making an Impact
The increase in jumpers, coupled with concerns for public safety after the city approved a Habitat for Humanity housing project underneath a portion of the bridge’s south side, forced officials to erect 10-foot tall, one-inch thick mesh fencing blocking access to 20 alcoves on both sides of the historic bridge. People had used the alcoves to climb off the bridge and onto the ledge.
Local residents have called on the City Council to reconsider placing a restroom and a playground in the Desiderio Neighborhood Park, located next to a nine-unit Habitat for Humanity housing development of the same name that opened two years ago a short distance from the base of the bridge. Owners of the newly built homes fear that a jumper could possibly hit and injure someone living below.
The housing project and park occupies the former Desiderio Army Reserve Center, declared surplus property by the Army and recommended for closure in 2005. After public hearings, city officials decided to convert portions of the property into affordable housing and a neighborhood park.
“I think the fencing has definitely deterred people,” said Pasadena Public Information Officer Lisa Derderian. “We have had a few situations since the fencing went up where first responders had to talk people down from the bridge. It’s made an impact, and the permanent barrier continues to do so.”
After several public meetings, the Colorado Street Bridge Task Force concluded that vertical barriers and fencing at the ends are the only deterrent measures that physically prevent suicide attempts from occurring. The task force is made up of preservationists, engineers and first responders.
Vertical barriers are also considered cost efficient because of the one-time construction fee, and require little ongoing costs.
According to the recommendation, barriers will also lessen the strain on first responders.
According to Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, barriers are successful deterrents.
“There are quite a few studies that show building barriers can save considerable numbers of lives, and people don’t just go to another location,” Harkavy-Friedman said in an interview with the USC School of Social Work.
According to Harkavy-Friedman, suicide rates decline by 30 to 50 percent when the availability of highly lethal and commonly used suicide methods are restricted. And those people whose efforts are hampered by a bridge barrier usually do not just drive to another bridge.
“If you limit access, then the crisis will pass,” Harkavy-Friedman said.
Most people who are considering suicide are just trying to end the pain they feel in that moment. Restricting access to lethal means give a person a temporary reprieve that allows them to move out of the crisis and allows them a chance to seek help as their decision-making ability recovers.
Meanwhile, research has not shown a correlation between merely posting suicide-prevention signs, as had been done previously, and lower suicide rates.