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The Golden Gate

The Golden Gate Bridge connects more than San Francisco and Marin County; it connects the world of the living to that of the dead. Since its opening in 1937, the 4,200-foot suspension bridge that spans San Francisco Bay has played host to on average 25 suicides per year, more than 1,000 suicides total.

View of Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point
Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point

The drop from the bridge is 222 feet at low tide. This is the equivalent to a 19 story building. Despite this, at least twelve people have jumped and survived. Ironically, people who deliberately jump are more likely to survive than those who accidentally fall off the bridge because they are more relaxed. Bridge officials say that most suicides try to be considerate of others and park their cars in the parking lot before walking to the middle of the bridge and jumping. They also say almost everyone leaps from the Eastern side of the Bridge. Perhaps this is to take one last look at the San Francisco skyline.

After a successful suicide it's up to the Coast Guard, if the body landed in the water, and the Bridge personnel, if it lands on the ground or in the moat surrounding the South tower, to reclaim the body. 

Moat surrounding tower

Often this is not easy as bodies can sink quickly or come apart on the rocks. The most macabre aspect of this is perhaps the Bridge personnel's use of a crab pot and grappling hook to scoop up the body parts. Sometimes the crab pot comes back with crabs as well. Drawn to the now lifeless flesh, the crabs first consume the eyeballs then make their way to the soft skin of the cheeks.

The Bay's deadly pull, however, predates the bridge and its jumpers. In 1853, the steamer SS Tennessee disappeared into the dense fog of Golden Gate Strait. Running afoul of the Gate's notorious current and rocks she sank quickly (Tennessee Cove is named in her honor) only to rise again as a phantom. The phantom ship has been sighted by credible witnesses over the years, often passing below the bridge, its deck unmanned, only to fade into the fog minutes later.

On rare occasions, the SS Tennessee has passed other vessels plying the gate. One such incident occurred in November 1942, when crew members of the USS Kennison fixed their gaze on the outmoded SS Tennessee. Curiosity became amazement, amazement became bafflement: The strange ship left a wake, but nothing registered on the destroyer's radar.

USS Kennison reported ghost ship
USS Kennison reported "Ghost Ship"

The Tennessee isn't the only ship to go down in the treacherous waters. Dozens have run aground or sunk in the straight. In 1901, the steamer SS City of Rio de Janeiro hit rock off Fort Point. The commotion caused her 200 passengers to rush to the deck. Passengers fought for seats in the lifeboats only to overcrowd and sink them. Fist fights broke out over life jackets. In less than 18 minutes she was inundated by the Pacific's frigid waters with a loss of 129 souls. Shaken survivors clung to debris and struggled to shore as the hiss of escaping steam and the screams of the dieing gave way to the still silence of the coastal fog.

The Golden Gate's cold waters have swallowed more than sailors and suicides. On Feb. 17, 1937, 10 bridge workers rode a falling scaffold through a safety net. On foggy nights when the wind howls through the cables, one can almost hear the ghastly cries of men plummeting to their deaths.

Throughout its history the Golden Gate has beckoned travelers as a symbol of freedom, of new opportunity, of hope. Does the Gate beckon the dead as well?


For More Information

Golden Gate Bridge
SF Visitors Bureau
415-391-2000 (San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau)


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