Golden Gate guardian builds bridge between suicide and life

California Highway Patrol man learned how talking brought people back ‘over the rail’

Retired California Highway Patrol sergeant Kevin Briggs at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Photograph: Simon Carswell

Retired California Highway Patrol sergeant Kevin Briggs at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Photograph: Simon Carswell

 

Light Pole 69 stands in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, that stately reddish-orange feat of engineering at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. It is around here that many people have jumped to their deaths over the years.

It is also where Sgt Kevin Briggs was despatched on his motorbike again and again while working for the California Highway Patrol for 17 years.

Briggs, retired since 2013, walks the bridge with me, recalling the many moments he found people on the “chord” – the narrow steel ledge on the other side of a four-foot rail – looking down 220 feet to the churning waters below.

By gently talking and engaging, Briggs has saved hundreds of lives. “We got back over the rail many, many more than we lost,” he says.

He points to certain spots as we stroll from the middle to the north tower, one of the two formidable structures holding this bridge up. “You can see the places where things have happened,” he says, looking ahead of him on the foot and cycle path ahead.

Just three months after the bridge opened in 1937, a man jumped to his death. Since then, the bridge has become a magnet for suicides; an estimated 1,600 people have jumped. A fall from here is nearly always fatal.

Stainless-steel net

Briggs met Jason Garber, a young man from New Jersey, on July 22nd of his last year on the job. It was the third time that Garber had gone out to the bridge. Briggs found him sitting on the chord, near the middle. They talked for almost an hour. Jason spoke a little about his family and about how his doctors didn’t understand him.

He asked Briggs did he know the story of Pandora’s box, how the mythological box contained evils and sorrows and that the only good thing in the box was hope. Jason asked Briggs what if, when he opened the box, there was no hope inside. It left him stuck for words.

“He just kind of straightened up his back and I saw a tear come down his right cheek. He just leaned to his right and he was gone,” Briggs recalls. “I thought we had a chance with this guy.”

Minutes later, a man ran up to Briggs to tell him there was a body in the water. “No crap, what do you think I have been doing here for an hour?” Briggs asked him. “He goes, ‘no, another one’.”

Another time, a man shook Briggs’s hand twice during a 40-minute conversation. The third time, he said: “Kevin, I want to thank you for everything but I have to go because my grandmother is down there,” and he jumped.

Unlike other police work, where officers are trained to rush in and control a situation, Briggs calmly kept his distance, handling emotional people with low rational thoughts. His goal was always to get to know the person, stretch out time, calm them, appeal to them and “let that rational thought come back”.

On one occasion, Briggs came across a young African-American man on the chord in the depths of despair. He had lost his job and had large medical bills after his new baby was born prematurely. Briggs talked to him for 90 minutes, about how his child would think when they grew up if they had no father. He eventually came back over the rail, an act Briggs describes as “empowering” for them.

“It is a rebirth. I never claimed that I can solve it all. You can’t from here, I would be lying, but if I am helping them today, maybe there is somebody helping them tomorrow and the next day,” he says.

Crisis interventions

Guardian of the Golden Gate BridgeTed TalkThe Bridge between Suicide and Life

Briggs believes it is important to talk openly about mental health issues, just as he talked with people on the bridge. He sees it as building a bridge to encourage people to seek help and to talk. He himself has had his own troubles, about which he speaks openly.

“I am going to bear it to you, folks, in the hope that you can talk about it to somebody else and somebody else can talk to you,” he says. “It is not this big macho thing by keeping it all in. It is not. Because it can ruin you.”

Samaritans helpline: 116123; samaritans.org