S A N F R A N C I S C O, Feb. 6, 2001 -- Blame Canada.
Engineering students at the University of British Columbia said Monday they were responsible for tethering the shell of an old Volkswagen Beetle to the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge and then tossing it over the side. The stunt backed up rush-hour traffic as gawkers slowed to look at the dangling car.
When asked if UBC students were responsible, Chad Brown, a senior mechanical engineering student at the university, coyly answered: "Not officially."
But as the sun rose, a televised view of the shell of the old-style red VW could be seen through the fog, dangling from a cable strung under the bridge roadway. An "E" and a Canadian flag were painted on the side.
"It's Engineering Week at the university," said Brown, 22. "The whole premise was to increase interest in engineering, specifically in engineering at the University of British Columbia."
The cable was attached to nylon webbing at two points under the bridge roadway, cradling the car.
The car was cut loose at about 8:10 a.m. by the Golden Gate Bridge District, and it quickly sank as U.S. Coast Guard crews kept the area under the bridge clear.
Mary Currie, a spokeswoman for the Bridge District, said two workers crawled underneath the roadway and cut the webbing with a knife.
The distance from the roadway to the water is approximately 67 meters and the car dangled approximately 30 meters above the water until being released.
With the sounds of a party in the background as he was being interviewed, Brown said about a dozen people took part in the early-morning stunt. He said they carefully worked out the project so the bridge would not be damaged and the car wouldn't injure anyone on the water.
He said the stunt was a "total surprise" to people in San Francisco, who aren't familiar with the engineering students' reputation for pulling off similar antics around Vancouver.
The San Francisco project was staged to mark the 20th anniversary of a similar incident on the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver.
Why the Golden Gate Bridge?
"The more international the stunt, the better the press coverage," Brown said.
He said he's received "a ton" of media calls from radio and television stations in San Francisco.
"Their attitude is pretty positive."
But if the pranksters were looking for publicity, they picked a bad day. The entire time the car dangled from the bridge, the scene was shrouded in thick fog.
Under Cloak of Darkness
Witnesses told the California Highway Patrol they saw a truck stop on the bridge at about 3:30 a.m. About a dozen people jumped out, attached the cables and threw the car over the side before jumping back in the truck and driving off, the witnesses said.
The car was attached on the northbound, non-commute side, but southbound drivers watching the activity slowed traffic heading for San Francisco.
Currie said the Highway Patrol will lead the investigation into the prank, which could be punishable by fines and community service penalties.
The penalties for such pranks increased following a 1996 episode in which actor Woody Harrelson and several other activists climbed one of the bridge's cables to protest forest logging.
Brown said the engineering students sometimes get bills from those who end up having to clean up after their pranks.
The students pay the money but ask that they be allowed to donate it to charity, a request which is usually granted.
Brown wouldn't identify the group involved in Monday's prank or say when they were expected back.
"They still have to get across the border, you know," he said.