(Click here to watch dramatic video)
Russell Polan had lived with the pain of depression since he was a child, but on Feb. 11, the 54-year-old Hope Ranch resident sank to a new low.
He had just been through a breakup with a woman and was convinced he’d never find another soul mate. After work that day, he went to a tavern for drinks with a friend and they ended up arguing about Mr. Polan’s approach to dating. In the early evening, an intoxicated Mr. Polan stormed out of the bar, started up his small pickup truck and headed toward the 420-foot-tall Cold Spring Canyon Bridge.
“I just wanted to see what it would be like to sit up there on the railing and have that option,” he said.
After parking his truck at a pull-off point at the Santa Barbara end of the bridge, he walked halfway across the 1,200-foot long span, stepped over the railing and stood on the 6-inch-wide ledge, feeling the rumble as cars whizzed by. Fifteen minutes later, as a handful of law enforcement officers tried to talk him out of jumping, he let go. Miraculously, the officers grabbed hold of his arms and belt the second he released his grip, and hoisted him to safety over the waist-high railing.
Had deputies from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol not intervened, Mr. Polan would have been the 44th person to take a fatal jump off the bridge since it was built 42 years ago. The incident — along with the deadly plunge of a San Marcos High School student in July — helped spur a movement to build a 6-foot barrier on the bridge to curtail would-be jumpers.
The idea was aired publicly this week by a coalition of law enforcement, highway and mental health officials making up the Cold Spring Arch Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee.
Meanwhile, Mr. Polan is the closest Santa Barbara County has to a survivor of a jump off the bridge; no jumpers have survived a fall from Cold Spring. Mr. Polan believes a barrier would help prevent more suicides.
For him, the trip to the bridge was a drink-induced whim, not a premeditated mission. The second he was thwarted, his desire to die dissipated.
“It’s so easy — too easy,” he said Thursday. “It was the first place I thought of. . . . I wouldn’t have climbed a fence.”
Although he still battles depression, he said he isn’t in the temporary trough that darkened his mood in the days after his breakup.
“Nobody is worth ending everything for,” said Mr. Polan, who is seeing a psychologist and working at concentrating on the positive aspects of his life, such as his job and surfing.
When members of the suicide prevention committee released their proposal Wednesday night, they seemed to be preparing for opposition, both from groups committed to historical preservation and individuals who believe people who really want to commit suicide will find a way to do it.
Preservation groups in June 2004 vigorously opposed a plan to demolish an 88-year-old bridge in Buellton.
But on the matter of Cold Spring bridge, those groups thus far have been silent, or even sympathetic.
“We don’t want any more of this unfortunate activity either,” said Sue Adams, chair of Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission for Santa Barbara County, adding that the bridge needs to be at least 50 years old to be considered for landmark status by the commission.
Jarrell Jackman, executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historical Preservation, said that while he isn’t thrilled with the idea of a barrier, he understands the need.
“I can accept it if there’s an aesthetic solution,” he said.
People tend to think a barrier would cost millions of dollars, 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone said. Caltrans officials estimate the cost at $300,000 — an amount Mr. Firestone believes is low. “Call it a half a million,” he said. “It still makes economic sense.”
He brought up the issue about a week ago at the Solvang Men’s Forum. “At first I sensed opposition to the idea. Then I sensed an overwhelming turnaround when we started talking about these facts.”
Like Mr. Polan, the deputies who pulled him to safety also support a barricade. They may have gone over themselves, were it not for two other officers who grabbed hold of the entire group.
One of the deputies was 29-year-old J’aime O’Toole, who, despite being just 5 feet 3, bent over the railing to grab Mr. Polan’s belt. The move — which was captured on a video camera in another deputy’s car — put the railing at her kneecaps.
Just before the officers saved Mr. Polan, he was chatting with them and seemed to be preparing to climb back over the railing to safety. But then, as the officers drew nearer, his face went slack. He let go at the same moment they lunged forward to grab him.
“All I was thinking was ‘Grab his belt loops and get him over,’ ” Deputy O’Toole said. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m high up’ until I looked at the video.”
Another deputy, 37-year-old Clayton Turner, said Mr. Polan’s body was dead weight as they wrestled him back over the rail.
“He wanted to go,” he said. Later that night, Mr. Polan thanked Deputy Turner and said he’d never entertain the notion of suicide again.
Mr. Polan, who graduated from San Marcos High School in 1969, works at a plant in Santa Barbara that manufactures scuba diving helmets.
“I know people can get really really low,” he said. “It’s hard to stop people from thinking that going to the other side is any better. . . . It’s important to think for a minute before making that decision.”
To see the video of law enforcement officers rescuing a would-be jumper from the Cold Spring bridge, click here.
The Cold Spring Arch Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee is holding a town hall forum about proposed prevention methods from 6:30-8 p.m. May 22 at Santa Barbara City College, BC245 Forum Room. The meeting will feature a presentation by John Kevin Hines, who survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. Information: Joni Kelly at The Glendon Association, 681-0415, ext.