Golden Gate bridge jumper now spreads message of hope

John Kevin Hines survived his leap off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000.

The moment he leapt off the Golden Gate Bridge, John Kevin Hines regretted the decision.

John Kevin Hines survived his leap off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS
John Kevin Hines survived his leap off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS

So, during his four seconds of free fall on Sept. 25, 2000, with the wind roaring in his ears, the 19-year-old San Francisco City College student threw back his head.

When he knifed into the bay below, Mr. Hines felt an explosion in his gut — like shrapnel, his ribs had splintered into his organs. His limbs moved like jellyfish in the frigid shock of the saltwater. Witnesses swear they saw a sea lion keep him afloat during some of the 22 minutes it took for rescue crews to get to him.

Somehow, that day he became the 26th person to survive a suicidal plunge off the 220-foot-high span since it opened in 1937; at least 1,300 others have perished.

Now an unabashed lover of life, Mr. Hines, 25, has made a mission of reaching out to other suicidal people and their loved ones, and he’s speaking in Santa Barbara next week. His message is that suicidal people don’t truly want to die — they want someone to care, and can sometimes be saved by being asked the simple question, “Is everything OK?”

It’s a question none of the several people who walked past him that day on the bridge bothered to ask.

“I really mean it, I’m just glad for every second of every day after Sept. 25, 2000,” said Mr. Hines, who now works as an activities director at School of the Arts high school in San Francisco. “Hell, it was fun recouping in the hospital.”

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, he will be among a panel of speakers at a free forum on suicide prevention at San Marcos High School, which lost a student of its own to suicide last year. In July 2005, Andrew Popp became the 42nd person to jump off the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge on Highway 154.

Another person has since died jumping off the 420-foot-high bridge.

Unlike the Golden Gate, no one has survived a leap off the majestic Cold Spring monument, which was built in 1963 and crosses thorny brush and jagged rock. On average, one person dies every year jumping from the structure. The quarter-mile span is considered one of the highest concentrated spots for deaths — suicides or otherwise — in a five-county swath from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz, according to Caltrans officials.

Wednesday’s forum is hosted by the Glendon Association, a nonprofit group that provides educational services on topics such as suicide, violence, strained relationships and child abuse. The forum’s purpose has always been to reach out to anyone concerned about the issue of suicide.

But the 12th annual talk seems particularly timely because, in the minds of many local professionals, a spate of jumps and attempts last year was the last straw.

In the spring, a coalition that included sheriff’s deputies, highway officials, the Glendon Association and 3rd District County Supervisor Brooks Firestone started appealing to the general public for taking action to prevent suicides from the bridge. Most notable was the idea to erect a barrier fence at least 6 feet tall.

The group, with its detailed presentations and multiple experts on hand at two town-hall forums, appeared steeled for a public debate. After all, the battle over whether to alter the Golden Gate Bridge has raged for quite some time, with opponents of suicide barriers saying where there’s a will, there’s a way for suicidal people, and that trying to save them is not worth the price of altering an architectural wonder.

It’s a notion that Glendon research and education director Lisa Firestone — who is not related to Mr. Firestone — has been ready to combat, armed with a career’s worth of statistics.

But so far, the local group, called the Cold Spring Arch Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee, hasn’t heard so much as a half-hearted counterargument. Even leaders of local historical preservation groups admit that something needs to be done.

“It was a little surprising,” said Caltrans spokesman Colin Jones, “but I think to the community’s credit they looked at the safety aspects first.”

As a result, Caltrans last week quietly moved forward with the project; officials say the barrier will be up in about two years.

Meanwhile, Dr. Firestone, a clinical psychologist, often notes that when barriers go up, suicide rates not only diminish on the bridges, but go down in the surrounding community. Likewise, in England, when they started using a less lethal brand of gas in the ovens, the grisly practice of committing suicide by sticking one’s head in the oven dramatically decreased, she said.

“When you restrict the means for suicide, the rates go down,” Dr. Firestone said. “It also sends the message to the community that we care and don’t want people doing this.”

Mr. Hines agrees. He has met No. 27 and No. 28 — the two other people who survived a drop from the Golden Gate after him. Both felt that same pang of regret as soon as they let go of the railing, he said. To him, it’s evidence that suicide attempts are spontaneous acts not often repeated after failure.

To accentuate the point, he goes back to the day he tried to end his life. During his bus ride to the reddish-orange-colored symbol of San Francisco, Mr. Hines wept, hoping somebody would ask him what was wrong. When he arrived, he paced along the pedestrian sidewalk, still “bawling like a little baby,” hoping someone would intervene. Cars drove by. Tourists walked past. Two police officers on bicycles, whose job it was to keep an eye out for jumpers, pedaled past him.

Then, “a beautiful woman comes up to me,” he said. “Blond, curly hair. Big glasses. European accent. She said, ‘Will you take my picture?’ ”

He did, saying to himself, “Nobody cares.”

As the woman walked away, Mr. Hines backed up to get a running start. He took a leap over the low railing, the bridge so high above the harsh waters of San Francisco Bay that helicopters regularly fly beneath it with ease.

When he jumped, he heard a gasp from someone on the bridge. As the seconds ticked by, the only sound was the wind in his ears.

YOU SHOULD KNOW

If you or someone you know is suicidal, call the Family Service Agency 211 Helpline or the Santa Barbara Mental Health Access Team at 888-868-1649