Seattle Office Routine: Coffee, Email, Watch for Suicidal Jumpers

Dec. 13, 2006 — -- Troy Gilliland arrives at his office early in the morning to take in the breathtaking sunrise views of Seattle's historic Aurora Bridge as he drinks his coffee and checks e-mail. But on Dec. 9, he did a double take. There was a bloodied, crumpled body in the parking lot only 20 feet below his window.

"I looked closer and my stomach started to turn," said Gilliland, a 36-year-old engineering manager who works for the semiconductor chip manufacturing company Impinj. "The body was lying in an odd position and blood was coming out."

Gilliland said he and his co-workers, whose office cubicles sit along windows overlooking the 75-year-old half-mile-long bridge, have seen at least 10 other suicide jumps in the last year. And four of them have landed right in their parking lot.

"It's been an ongoing theme," said Gilliland. "You see a body in the parking lot and look at the bridge and see a vacant car with the door open. It gives you a sick feeling in the stomach -- how could someone be that despondent?"

The residents in this funky residential colony in the Fremont section of Seattle call them "jumpers," and Washington state officials report about 50 of them have leaped to their death in the last decade, nine of them this year.

The office block where Gilliland works houses 400 to 500 employees from four or five companies, including the software giant Adobe and sportswear retailer Cutter & Buck. Their shared lot spans about 300 yards on the northwest side of the bridge, and those who drive must pass under the bridge to park their cars.

A woman who jumped to her death this month landed only one foot away from a pick-up truck. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported earlier this year that one jumper actually fell on an SUV while the driver was inside. The body struck the passenger side, and the driver was not hurt.

Not only are the falling bodies disturbing to employees, but so are the off-putting sirens, ambulances and police who cordon off the lot in the aftermath of the jumps.

And that's not all. When a 15-year-old girl jumped to her death this year, family and friends spray painted a memorial in the parking lot.

Incidents generally happen in the morning. Someone notices a body and a group quickly gathers by the windows and gawks for 45 minutes to an hour.

"The cars arrive to block off the area and take photos and a tarp is put over the body," said Gilliland. "You feel a sense of loss even though you don't know the person."

Not only have the jumpers landed in the lot under Gilliland's window, but also in the waters of Lake Union on the eastern side of the bridge. Police say one went through the roof of an unoccupied houseboat.

At the Lake Washington Rowing Club, which sits below the bridge on North Lake Way, boaters have been traumatized by jumpers who splash near a 60- to 80-foot dock that is surrounded by houseboats and sailboats.

Conor Bullis, who started as manager of the club only six days ago, was forewarned by his staff.

"The first day I was here everyone told me I'd probably see someone jump every week," he said.

One club member attempted to rescue a jumper while sitting in her boat under the bridge.

"I saw a black object falling fast toward the water about 25 yards ahead of me, and for an instant I thought it was a large bird, diving for a fish," said Susan Kinney, who said the body hit the water with a dense thud.

"I immediately backed my boat over toward him to see whether he was alive or within help," she said. "From a few yards away I concluded that he was dead -- utterly peaceful looking, wearing black, floating with one of his black shoes beside him, face out of the water and not apparently breathing."

She raced her boat back for the ambulance.

Ryan Thurston, a 29-year-old senior design engineer at Impinj has witnessed two jumpers -- one plunging from the bridge and the other in his parking lot. But it is the morning drive under the bridge on his approach to work from 34th Street that frightens him the most.

"Within 10 seconds you are in harm's way of a body falling on your car," Thurston said. "I look through the sunroof and make sure nothing is falling from the sky. That's how bad it is."

The Aurora Bridge is a massive, steel truss structure, 70 feet wide; all but 13 feet of that is roadway. At its high point, the bridge is 155 feet above the water, the height of a 15-story building.

Built in 1931, the Aurora Bridge is a national historic landmark, and therein lies the problem. Area residents say jumpers are drawn to the dramatic vistas and an easily accessible footpath that traverses the entire bridge.

Many suggest building a fence to thwart would-be jumpers, but any such project would need to comply with federal and state preservation laws.

Instead, hoping to reduce then number of jumpers, the city will place call boxes and signs along the bridge by next month at a cost of $35,000. The phones will have two buttons, offering direct connections to 911 and to a suicide prevention line.

A larger number of signs along the length of the bridge will display the full number for the 24-hour crisis line.

Gregg Hirakawa, spokesman for the city's Department of Transportation, explains that the call boxes will make it as easy as possible to speak to a counselor, while the signs will help an individual make a more discreet call from a personal cell phone.

Stan Suchan, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation, adds that other preventive measures are planned as the efficacy of the phones and signs is judged.

But he cautions that fencing, barriers, or nets would be a much more complicated and expensive proposition.

The city's plan is laughable, say Impinj employees.

"It's kind of like poking at it with a stick, given the long history of the bridge," Troy Gilliland said.

In the meantime, the employees who have front row seats to the suicides plan to band together and pressure for action.

"We are all very concerned about the physical and psychological safety of our employees," said Jim Donaldson, communications director for Impinj, who wants to work collectively with the other companies to find solutions."I really don't think anyone should have to witness what we saw."