The Bridge of Death

ByABC News
October 20, 2006, 6:41 PM

Oct. 20, 2006 — -- There have been more than 1,200 suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge since it opened in 1937, among the most of any location in the world. There is virtually no barrier to someone who is determined to jump -- only a 4-foot safety railing.

The jump is the equivalent of a 4-second, 25-story fall, and although some have survived it, a body is usually shattered when it strikes the water at 75 miles per hour. Whether to build a "suicide barrier" has been a political hot button in San Francisco for decades.

But what Eric Steel did raised the heat of that fiery debate by several degrees.

After reading about the number of self-inflicted deaths from the Golden Gate, Eric Steel, a documentary filmmaker, saw a story in the bridge's morbid allure.

From January through December 2004, Steel used 10-to-12-person crews to train his cameras day and night on this landmark -- using both close-up lenses and wide angle shots to see the full expanse of the bridge.

By the time he finished, he had taped 23 of the 24 suicides that occurred that year. Now he has released a documentary called "The Bridge" that shows some of the jumps. The film has produced both praise and condemnation for his choices.

"I've been working on this film for three years now," Steel said in an interview with "20/20's" Bob Brown.

"I can tell you, the first time I saw someone die was incredibly painful," he said. "And even now when I watch it in the theaters, or if I watch it on a small screen, it still affects me deeply."

And Steel's reaction is not unusual. Recent articles have described the film as "irresponsible," "exploitive," "voyeuristic," "ghastly" and "immoral." Someone even called it a "snuff film."

"The strange part about that is, almost everyone who made those comments made them before they'd seen a single frame of footage," Steel said. "I think the film is incredibly sensitive. And I think people were quick to judge, because it's something they're very afraid of. Here there was actual footage, indisputable evidence that people were climbing over the rail, as easy as could be, and ending their life at a national monument, a place that we treasure. And I think that's very scary to people."

But the documentary has raised hackles over the appropriateness of documenting suicide, and heightened fears that it could encourage copycat suicide acts. Celia Kupersmith, CEO and general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District said that when Steel's film first began to get publicity in festivals earlier this year, there was an increase in suicide attempts at the bridge.

"I don't think it's just his movie," Kupersmith said. "Any sort of press coverage of this phenomenon here causes people to get ideas."

Some critics are also worried because they believe that seeing suicides often prompts others, but Steel doesn't believe that the causal chain is that direct.

"Most suicides are the end product of a long struggle with mental illness," Steel said. "They're not the end product of seeing images of people killing themselves. We don't show anything that people don't already know. The images themselves I don't think are the things that are driving people to the bridge."

Steel said that if he or any of his crew members thought they were about to witness a suicide, they had their phones set to speed dial the bridge authority and inform them.

"All of us came to the same conclusion that we were human beings first and filmmakers second," Steel said. "And if the opportunity to intervene, to try to save someone's life came, that's the choice that we were going to make."

In that time, Steel and his team saved six people, and one person more than once.

But sometimes there was little they could do. Many of the people who ended up jumping looked like tourists contemplating the view. Like 34-year-old Eugene Sprague.

"It was a beautiful, sunny day. He had a leather jacket on, and he has this very long brown hair that was blowing in front of his face, and he did what most, most tourists do on the bridge." Steel said.