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."He began at the south side. He walked all the way across the bridge," Steel said. "He seemed to, you know, stop occasionally and enjoy the view of the ocean, and enjoy the view of the city and the bay. He wasn't crying. He, he just looked very free."
The story of Eugene Sprague opened a door to many of the issues connected to this film, and the complex circumstances behind a suicide attempt.
According to Steel, Eugene's life was very difficult. His mother had died when he was young, an event that "darkened his whole outlook on life. He seemed not to be able to maintain relationships with women. And his friends were trying hard to find a way to bring him back.
"He was not a morose loner, certainly not that," Carolyn Pressley, a lifelong friend of Sprague and his mother, said. "He just wasn't outgoing in a mainstream sense."
Sprague was depressed, however, and he had talked about committing suicide, although when Pressley heard from him, shortly before Steel saw him on the bridge, he had been looking for work.
"It appeared that he was about to get some," Pressley said. "And on the day that he made his final choice, I don't think ... anyone really had a sense that today's the day."
Sprague's suicide caught Steel and his crew off guard -- they didn't see anything in his behavior that caused them to alert suicide prevention crews on the bridge. They watched Sprague going back and forth for 93 minutes, walking back and forth along the bridge, finally returning to the spot where he had started. He sat for a moment, and then turned around and ended his life.
Like many friends and relatives of suicide victims, Pressley can't quite get over Sprague's death.
"I don't think I've ever stopped being bothered by it," she said. "I think any of us who are touched by this phenomenon never stop asking themselves what might I have done? What didn't I do?"
"The strange thing about the bridge itself is that when someone dies there, there's this big splash," he said. "And within minutes, it's like nothing ever happened. All the ripples go away. And the traffic keeps moving, and the pedestrians are walking, and the water's going under the bridge. But for the families, that ripple keeps going forever."
Some, however, welcome the debate on suicide, but worry about other effects that the film might have in romanticizing suicide.
"There are times that suicide is presented as mysterious, as appealing and as inevitable, and those are messages that we absolutely do not want anyone to share," said Dr. Madelyn Gould, a professor of psychiatry and public health at Columbia University Medical Center and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
"Because suicide is not inevitable, it's preventable. It's so not appealing. It's the worst thing that someone can do obviously to themselves and their loved ones," she said.
When Steel got the permits necessary to set up cameras and tape the bridge for a year, he didn't say why he was doing it. And when he interviewed the family members of suicide victims, he didn't tell them in advance that he had captured the suicides on tape.
When asked why he declined to notify anyone about the purpose of his filming, he cited a concern that people would come to the bridge to commit suicide to be in the film.
He had the same reasoning for not informing friends and family of the victims of his filming.
"All the family members now, at this point, have seen the film," Steel said. "Every one of them was glad that they had participated in it. So in the end, I think, you know, I made the right choice."
In his follow-ups with friends and family, Gould doesn't believe that Steel did enough to talk about the reasons behind suicide.
"I would have liked to have seen him go the next step of talking about the real causes, and then the solutions," she said. "We needed to have that next step so that people walk away thinking, 'I can do something. I'm empowered. This is horrible. I don't want this to happen to anybody, and I know that it doesn't have to happen to everybody.'"
For decades, cost and aesthetics have been cited as two of the reasons why an effective suicide barrier has never been built on the Golden Gate Bridge. The authority that manages the bridge relies on trained personnel to keep watch.
"So far this year, we've talked back 65 percent of all of the suicide candidates that have arrived here at the bridge to do some sort of harm to themselves," Kupersmith said.
"We do that by training not only what you might consider your typical first responders, meaning your police officers, but we also train our ironworkers, our painters, our service operators -- literally anyone whose job requires them to be out on the Golden Gate Bridge on a regular basis," she said.
While Sprague's story illustrates what happens when it's not apparent that someone is on the verge of suicide, other dilemmas surface when a bystander is certain that suicide is the intent of someone nearby, raising the question of intervention.
Steel said all the people working on his project called the bridge authority immediately if they thought there was a chance that someone would jump.
They also saw -- in the midst of motorists and bicyclists and pedestrians who often passed by unaware -- one instance in which a tourist named Richard Waters and an apparently troubled young woman happened to arrive at the same place at the same time.
"I realized that this girl was about to jump," Steel said. "But when I was behind the camera it was almost like it wasn't real because I was looking through the lens."
Over several minutes, the uncertainty that Waters felt disappeared. And he became a participant in a scene that had somehow seemed unreal through his camera.
Steel watched as Waters realized what the girl was doing, and reached over the rail and pulled her back.
"She started to bite me a little bit," Waters remembered. "So I just sat on her chest and just called 911."
It was the only time all year that Steel had observed such an act, and had there been a suicide barrier, the scene might never have occurred.
"She returned to the bridge on several other occasions. And we started to recognize her," Steel said. "She had a routine of adjusting her hat and putting on her makeup before she climbed over. And as soon as we recognized her, we called the authorities and they went out, and they took her off the bridge."
Among those who have campaigned for a suicide barrier is Kevin Hines. He is one of the few people to have survived a suicide attempt from the bridge -- an attempt he regretted as soon as he jumped.
Hines, 25, plays a large part in the documentary. Hines is one of the few people to have jumped from the bridge and lived. He did so in the year 2000, while suffering from bipolar disorder. It is a period that his father, Pat Hines, remembered vividly.
"One day Kevin would be king of the world, the next day, Kevin would be sobbing in his room," Pat said.
On a weekend in September 2000, he appeared to be behaving more normally; but unknown to his father, he'd a suicide letter, bought some candy for a last meal, and rode a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Like many suicidal people, Hines had a scenario in his mind to give himself a way out: that if someone noticed his despair, he would stop.
"So I'm crying softly to myself, waiting, you know, for that, for that angel to come down and tap me on the shoulder and say, 'hey, are you OK'?" Kevin said. "And that in itself is just a grandiose kind of a psychotic nature of suicidal thought. That's not how the world works. People don't have [telepathy], at least not the ones I knew on that bus."
On the bridge, Hines remembered a tourist asking him to take her picture but failing to notice his tears.
"And she walked away and I took a couple steps back and I ran and I threw myself over the rail. And at that moment, at the second of freefall, at the second, at the millisecond, 'Oh, my God, I don't want to die. What did I just do?'" Hines said.
In a last attempt to live, Hines realized that he had to change positions to avoid hitting the water head first. He landed feet first instead, in a sitting position.
Most people would have been killed even in the position that Hines assumed. Two of his vertebrae were shattered on impact. He couldn't move his legs. But he used his arms to try to swim toward the light he could see above him on the surface of the water. And as he hoped for rescue, something helped him stay afloat.
In less than a half hour, the Coast Guard picked up Hines from the water and took him to a hospital, where workers notified his father.
Hines has since received treatment for his bipolar disorder; and because of their experience, both Hines and his father are known in the Bay Area for their work in suicide prevention.
They said they are grateful for Steel's documentary, despite the controversy over his methods of taping suicides over the course of a year and making them a part of his film.
They believes there will be a benefit to the debate in prodding authorities to take some kind of action to finally construct a suicide barrier on the bridge.
"This is not something that has started just because of Eric Steel's movie," Pat Hines said. "There have been numerous attempts to convince the Bridge Directorate to raise the rail, in essence repair the fault that occurred at the construction of the bridge."
"I think I'm the Golden Gate Bridge's worst nightmare," Steel said. "When you have actual footage, when people are forced to confront it as a witness, it changes the picture completely. If there were a 2-mile stretch of road anywhere in this country, and two dozen people died at that stretch of road year after year after year after year, you know, the people responsible for that stretch of road would feel compelled to take drastic action to stop 24 people from dying the next year."
Last month, the Bridge Authority did award a contract to an engineering team for a comprehensive study and preliminary design of a suicide barrier, and just this week, studies began that could potentially settle the issue.
"We're going to do the wind tunnel testing that's necessary to determine, can you put a higher fence," said Kupersmith. "If a barrier is built here, it will deter people. I can promise you that. Because I won't build one unless it's going to deter people from jumping."
So -- for reasons that many believe include the publicity over Eric Steel's film -- some renewed steps have been taken on a painful and long-standing issue. Steel has said he wanted to make a film about the human spirit in crisis in a country where during some years there have been nearly twice as many suicides as homicides.
If there is a spike in suicides, Steel said remaining silent about the issue would not help.
"The answer is not to not show the film," Steel said. "I think the film gives you an insight into mental illness and suicide that no one's ever offered before."
"The answer is to have a discussion about suicide and mental illness in a way that produces different results," he said. "And I hope that I have, in some way, contributed to changing the dialogue."