The draw of the Aurora Bridge: Despite popular belief,the Aurora Bridge isn't prone to heartbreaking situations

In 1931 the Washington State Highway Department built a bridge as the final link in the U.S. Highway 99 connection between Canada and Mexico. A photo of seven pretty young women ran in local papers, a flirtatious invite to meet them on the bridge on Washington's birthday.

On Feb. 22, 1932, the bicentennial of our nation's first president, Washington Gov. Roland Hartley joined dignitaries from Mexico and Canada to officially open the George Washington Memorial Bridge.

They had reason for cheerful enthusiasm, especially considering the magnificence of the new cantilevered structure that even then was better known as the Aurora Bridge. They didn't let tragedy interrupt the festivities.

During construction, in August 1931, the principal designer of the bridge, Capt. Ralph Ober of the Seattle engineering firm of Jacobs and Ober, died from a brain hemorrhage. Before the bridge opened, in January 1932, a shoe salesman became the first to die of suicide by jumping from its heights.

Heartbreak doesn't appear to cling to the structure. "I think it is a beautiful bridge," says Rita Selin, and she ought to think so since "we do live right under her."

Her husband, Dic, shares her pleasure in their neighbor of 21 years: "I'd say I'm proud of it."

Any portents of evil at ground level come from the "Troll" sculpture crouched at the northern terminus. Looking south, it is all majestic, grand sweeps of geometric symmetry. Artists have given a title to this glorious vista: The Hall of Giants.

Dic travels this corridor daily and he says, "I'm excited every time I turn down Troll Way."

Disasters - such as the Metro bus that plummeted over the bridge railing and landed on a Fremont garden in 1998 - happen but don't create community alarm. "The odds of it happening again" are astronomical, Rita figures. "It doesn't worry me."

Any distress felt below the bridge would be for those who throw away their lives by tossing themselves from the bridge deck. "I feel terribly sad," Rita says. "What a terrible feeling of desperation it must take to do that."

Dic has interceded and "tried to convince them not to do it" when he's encountered someone at the rail considering the jump. "I like to think life has a greater value than that."

Around age 14, I saw the remnants of someone who jumped. My story goes like others I've heard. At first, I thought the pile on the roadway beneath the bridge must be rags. No curiosity urged me toward it, but the tarp-covered mound lay within my path.

When I'd arrived within a few feet I discerned the mangled body of a woman. I admit, shame-faced, I ran away.

'Ending the pain'

"Depression afflicts millions directly, and millions more who are relatives or friends of victims. It has been estimated that as many as one in 10 Americans will suffer from the illness." In "Darkness Visible," William Styron wrote about his own battle with this disease: "The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne."

Sgt. L.J. Eddy, head of the Seattle Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), trains patrol officers to better respond to calls involving mental illness. She says that 40 percent of the CIT officers' documented calls (where a police report was filed) involve some form of suicide ideation: the suspect talked about, contemplated or attempted suicide. Officers report comments like, "Why don't you take out your gun and shoot me?"

"Suicide is not about wanting to die," says Sue Eastgard, director of the Youth Suicide Prevention Program. "It is about wanting to end the pain."

Since 1932, an estimated 230 people have used the Aurora Bridge as a means to stop hurting, at an average of four deaths per year.

Suicide, rated the 11th-leading cause of death for Americans in 2004, is a serious problem. In 1996, there were nine people who died after a jump off the Aurora Bridge, and 229 others who died by suicide elsewhere in the county, according to the Seattle-King County Office of the Medical Examiner statistics.

"Your average suicidal stuff," Sgt. Eddy says. "There is no reason to cover it. It doesn't affect anyone beside the family." It devastates and destroys the lives of those left behind, but it doesn't make news.

An unearned image

To create a myth of Aurora as a "jumper's bridge" or "suicide bridge" is to claim unearned infamy.

An estimated 1,200 people have jumped to their deaths from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge since it opened in 1937, five times the tragedy of Aurora.

In 2006, our average hit its high once again, with nine deaths occurring, as it did the same in 1972 and 1996. In 1991 and 1994 no deaths took place, which maintains our fearsome average.

"Most suicidal people want help," Sue explains. "They want you to know how they feel. They want you to be with them."

And right now more attention is turned their way than ever before.

In my next column, I'll report on efforts by the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Transportation to take preventative measures.

As Styron wrote, "It has been shown over and over again that if the encouragement is dogged enough - and the support equally committed and passionate - the endangered one can nearly always be saved."

Kirby Lindsay has experienced Fremont in all its guises for decades. She invites your comments at fremont@oz. net.
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