“We often think about death, Just to feel Alive again.”
This is the story of people who endured a great deal through most of their life. A story of people who had been pushed to the brink, but came back with a better story to share. What pushes people to the edge so much so that they go to the point of no return. What makes a person break beyond any fix, which makes them lose all hope. There are a billion journeys and a billion problems, some so bad that people give up on everything.
People get caught amid the storm in their mind and never they never look the same again. In the year 1990, Kevin Briggs was assigned to the California Highway Patrol, he spent the majority of his time on the beat. Part of his route was the Majestic and Intimidating figure of the Golden Gate Bridge. While it offers some of the most mystifying views in the world, it holds a horrible secret: It is the most popular spot in the United States for suicide attempts. Not completely aware of its dark past, Kevin walked into this relationship with his new job only partially aware of its true identity.
He describes his story of rescuing hundreds of people from the jaws of defeat:
“I arrived in the Bay Area on December 5, 1983, just after a stint in the Army. I remember that because it was my birthday. In 1987, I started with the Department of Corrections, and in 1990, I joined the California Highway Patrol. I worked in Marin, a very big beat that starts just across the Bay and then goes into San Francisco County via that Golden Gate Bridge. Marin handles the bridge. So, I started working down there and really liked it, but I Didn’t know there was a dark side to it. People didn’t talk about it much. There were four to six calls every month about a suicidal subject on the bridge, which was called “suicide proof” by Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer in charge of building it.
“Suicide from the bridge,” Strauss said at the time, “is neither practical nor probable.” According to the Bridge Rail Foundation, an organization dedicated to stopping suicides from the bridge, nearly 1,600 people have leapt to their deaths since the bridge opened in 1937.
When I first found out this was part of the beat, I was angry. I had no training in this. This was a disservice to those people who’d climbed over the rail, and also a disservice to me. My first call was a lady who was quite despondent and may have been homeless. She had that very tough kind of life like most people who decided to go over the rail. Typically, they’d been going through things for several years. The majority suffered from mental illness, generally depression. I didn’t know how to approach, and I was stumbling with my words. I was having a tough time with it, but she eventually did come back over. To be honest with you, I think she had more sympathy for me because I was a mess.
As cops, you’re taught to take charge of situations. You get in there, handle it, move on. But with mental illness cases or negotiations, you calm down. You need to take your time and develop rapport. What I started doing was walking up to these folks, keeping a bit of distance, and asking their permission to approach. “Can I talk with you a little bit?” To have a cop ask their permission always surprised them and set us on a good path—most of the interactions people have with police is of us giving orders. Once I got permission, I tried to get below them. If they could look down on me, that was a plus. So I’d kneel down and get them to look through the rails at me.”
It is really difficult to talk someone out of a situation like that, especially when they have already made up their mind. To show them that there is someone who understands and there is so much to live for in life when the reason they are there is because they feel the furthest from that is mind-boggling. Kevin explains how at the start he felt he was incapable of dealing with such situations because of how little training he had in such situations. But with each such encounter he had, he learnt more about negotiating, about establishing a connection with the individual attempting suicide. He began understanding what really drove people to these extremes and how he could get them to come down from there. He also explains how the key in these situations like most situations is to listen.
“In the job, you use active listening skills, open body languages like not crossing your hands or arms. You never ask questions that begin with “why,” because their answers could point to blame. It’s very important not to judge, to let them tell their story as long as they want to keep talking. You say things just to let them know you’re paying attention, not to interrupt. You need to pay attention to. It’s a lot of work, you’re tired in the end.
We didn’t typically reach over or through the barrier to grab a potential jumper. I’ve had to wrestle with some folks when they were trying to get over the rail. But once they’re over you don’t. If you try to grab someone, their first instinct is to scoot away. I don’t want to lose them that way. But probably the biggest reason you don’t attempt to pull them back is that it’s so empowering for them to come back over on their own. It takes so much courage to do that.”
The other side of the spectrum is people who found it amusing and preferred having a laugh over someone’s life. It really makes you understand how some people end up over the line in such instances. People expect to be treated with love but the truth is the people who end up on this bridge have received the furthest thing from it. Kevin also talks about the people he was unable to save
“Sometimes you’d get drivers yelling from their cars. “Jump! Jump, man! It’ll be good pictures!” Some nonsense like that. Traffic is stop-and-go with people gawking, and these folks are going to be a couple of minutes late getting home, so they’ll roll down their window and shout. All that rapport you’d try to develop was out the window then because the person is like, “See, nobody cares!” It set you back. I lost two people that I spoke to directly. One I wasn’t with for very long. He was a really nice guy. Wouldn’t tell me his name. Wouldn’t tell me how he got to that situation, what his story was. But something was going on in his life, and finally he just turned around, shook my hand, and said, “Kevin, I have to go. My grandmother’s down there.” His grandmother had passed. He thanked me and jumped. There was nothing I could do.
People often ask, why there? Why the Golden Gate Bridge? It’s the bridge itself, and the romance associated with it. Most people jump in the mid-span of the bridge and think it’s a gateway to somewhere. They think the water is cleansing. They want to see the view before they go. A lot of people have said they know it will get the job done. They’re right. After someone jumps, they experience a free fall of four to five seconds. The body strikes the water at 75 miles per hour. That impact shatters bones, some of which puncture vital organs. Most die on impact. Those who don’t most likely flail in the water helplessly and drown.”
For all the lives that he has saved, for the people that have walked away with another day to live and have learned a valuable lesson it is a memory that will never wash away. It is painful to see however the number of people that think about doing this to themselves and a major factor to that is the guilt and the helplessness that they feel. So for them to look back and think that maybe there is still something worth living for is an incredible turnaround.
“If you lose someone, of course, it affects you. We used to deal with the old school way—go out, have a drink, shut your mouth, come back, and do your job. But now it’s getting better. We can see a counselor free of charge, and have confidentiality. Also, if you talk to someone who jumps, you don’t handle the case anymore. Another officer takes over. They’ll go to the Coast Guard, see the body, talk to witnesses, do a report. Which is a good way of doing it? I don’t want to go down and see what I refer to as my failure.”
Kevin Briggs is and his story is an inspiration, but it is not just one simple story it is a bundle of stories wrapped nice and tight in a blanket of hope. Kevin did one of the most difficult things in his careers and that is to resuscitate belief in someone who had let go of it, even the smallest scintilla of it a long time ago. To instill confidence, to show them there is still hope and to give them a perspective. To make them understand that there is someone who still needs them. Because that is what many of the people that end up at the periphery of that bridge are missing; Love and Hope