Q. In my family history, it says Don LaQuet ended his life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1960s. Do they keep records of people who have jumped off this bridge? — Wayne M. LaQuet, of Mascoutah
A. Sometimes it’s downright scary what you can find in no time on the Internet. In just five minutes Sunday night, I found that on May 15, 1963, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Donald LaQuet, of Sunnyvale, Calif., unofficially became the 244th person to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.
It was 11 days after a woman named Buckleman from San Mateo, Calif., dropped her 2-year-old daughter into the San Francisco Bay on Independence Day. Then, the day after your relative jumped, Patricia Williams, a 34-year-old woman from Hayward, Calif., who had been given a pass from Agnew State Hospital, also decided to end her life. And they are just three of more than 1,600 people known to have turned one of the most beautiful structures in the world into a setting of heartbreaking family tragedies.
It’s been that way almost since the day the bridge opened to traffic in late May 1937. Just three months later, 47-year-old World War I vet Harold Wobber took a bus to the bridge and started walking down the pedestrian walkway that crosses the 1.6-mile span. Along the way, he reportedly struck up a conversation with a college professor on vacation from Connecticut. Suddenly, Wobber took off his coat and vest, tossed them to the professor and announced, “This is where I get off. I’m going to jump.”
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The professor frantically grabbed Wobber’s belt, but Wobber broke free and jumped over the 4-foot-high rail to become the first recorded bridge suicide. After his death, newspapers reported Wobber was “a victim of shell shock” (now called PTSD) and had been under mental health treatment.
Since then, the bridge has become what many experts say is one of the world’s most notorious suicide locations in the world, second only to either the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, where more than 2,000 people have reportedly killed themselves from 1968 to 2006, or the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, where 100 or more people take their lives each year.
In 1945, 37-year-old elevator installation foreman August DeMont ordered his 5-year-old daughter to jump from a girder outside the bridge railing on which they were standing. She obeyed, and her father immediately followed her down the approximately 250 feet to the water. A note was found later in his car: “I and my daughter have committed suicide.
In 1954, Charles S. Gallagher seemingly had everything going for him as the director of the San Jose Merchants Association with an expensive home and fancy car. But when he returned from a vacation, he found his company was auditing him, so he excused himself for a cup of coffee, drove to the bridge and jumped. Four days later, his son, Charles Jr., a premed student at UCLA, took his father’s car and jumped from about the same location. “I am sorry,” he said in a note. “I want to keep Dad company.”
Making the situation even more alarming, the frequency has increased over the years. For the first couple of decades, there generally were 10 or fewer suicides each year, according to a survey done by the Chronicle in 2008. Then, starting in the mid-60s, the annual death toll soared to between 20 and 30 annually with a peak of 40 in 1977. It hasn’t slowed. In August 2013 alone, the Los Angeles Times reported 10 suicides, the highest monthly death toll in the bridge’s history.
The reasons are several, according to an op-ed piece written in 2013 by John Bateson, a crisis intervention specialist who wrote “The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge.” In addition to it simply being a noted world landmark, people may think that jumping produces a quick, painless death. Not necessarily true, Bateson says. Jumpers hit the water at 75 mph, but it is thought that despite suffering horrific internal injuries, up to 5 percent may survive — only to drown or die of hypothermia in the chilly water. “I was screaming, ‘Oh, God, save me! Oh,God, I want to live,’” 28-year-old Kenneth Baldwin, one of the few survivors, remembered screaming after his 1985 jump, according to a 1987 Chronicle story. He wound up suffering a few broken ribs and a bruised lung, but was able to return to his wife and 5-year-old daughter.
There’s been talk for years of installing additional safety barriers. As Bateson wrote, if even a handful of Giants’ fans would fall from the stands at AT&T Park, they’d probably do something pronto. But after approving the addition of a net in 2008 to deter suicides, it took until last June 27 for the bridge’s board to approve $76 million to pay for it. It’s expected to take three years to install.
As for official records, an official suicide count was kept until the 997th jump on June 5, 1995. Shortly thereafter, an idiot radio shock jock offered a case of Snapple to the family of the 1,000th victim (who was Eric Atkinson on July 3). After that, the Marin County coroner asked local media to stop recording the number of jumpers. Now, the best list up to 2008 may be the one compiled by the Chronicle, although I’m sure you can understand that many of the victims are labeled “identified” or “unidentified” to observe family privacy wishes. You can find it at goldengatebridgesuicides
What well-known TV and film star made her stage debut by playing a boy in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Sandy Koufax may have been a Hall-of-Fame pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but his first scholarship was for basketball as a freshman walk-on at the University of Cincinnati.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.