Tony Scott Death Highlights Need for Suicide Barriers, Vigilance

Nearly 500 people have killed themselves by jumping from high bridges, cliffs and freeway overpasses in Los Angeles County over the past 10 years, records show.

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    The Vincent Thomas Bridge, where film director Tony Scott leapt to his death last Sunday, for years had a reputation for attracting people bent on suicide -- until local officials banned pedestrians from its 6,000-foot span and wrapped part of it in a long mesh fence.

    The precautions have worked well enough that Scott was only the second person in the last 10 years to commit suicide by jumping from the Vincent Thomas, which connects the harbor community of San Pedro to Terminal Island, facilitating access to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

    In the Bay Area, where 1,500 people have committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge since it opened in 1937, it took 12 years of near-constant lobbying to convince officials to build a safety barrier, said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).

    Even now, the Assemblyman said, the steel mesh structures meant to catch jumpers on the way down haven't been built, because local transportation agencies are still waiting for the funding to come through from Washington, D. C.

    "We need to work to put suicide barriers on these bridges," Ammiano said. Even bridges like the Vincent Thomas, which already have fences around them, could benefit from upgraded protections, he said.

    "Barriers save lives," said Ammiano, who is considering asking for a statewide safety study of bridges and overpasses.

    MORE: Tributes Pour in For Tony Scott | Autopsy Results Weeks Away | Witness: Upsetting to See Fatal Leap

    Nearly 500 people have committed suicide in the past 10 years by jumping off a tall structure or cliff, according to data obtained by NBC4 from the Los Angeles County Coroner.

    Sixty-nine people threw themselves off bridges and overpasses, the data showed. Of them, 15 jumped off of the storied Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, known locally as the "suicide bridge."

    Many of these deaths could have been prevented, advocates say, with simple safety measures.

    In New York state, transportation officials have placed phone boxes on some bridges, along with signs offering suicide hotline information, and cameras that can be monitored by toll collectors and other personnel.

    Bridges and overpasses are not the only high places that serve as a lure for people who are suicidal. The data showed that 30 people over the last 10 years plunged to their deaths from the cliffs that hover over the county's beaches and coves. Another seven jumped from the tall buildings in and around Warner Center in Woodland Hills.

    In Pasadena, officials have tried for decades to reduce suicides at the Colorado Street Bridge. In 1993, the city installed bars with pointed tips about six inches apart along the side of the bridge.

    But Pasadena police Lt. Tom Delgado said people find ways around the barriers. Some will climb along the outside edge of the bridge and jump from there, he said, and others will find ways to slip through the spaces between the bars.

    "We just had one in the last two weeks that we prevented on the Colorado Street Bridge," he said. "Officers developed a rapport with the person and were able to get close enough to grab on."

    Bridges can be attractive to people who are in great distress for symbolic as well as practical reasons, said Dr. Ian Cook, who studies depression and suicide at UCLA.

    "Bridges are in some ways gateways, so there may be some symbolic meaning over why people choose a bridge," he said.

    But even more, he said, people jump from bridges and other high places because they are seeking a lethal method from which they have little chance of being rescued.

    Most people who seek the most lethal way of killing themselves use firearms, Cook said. Older, unmarried men are particularly likely to use a gun, he said.

    But those who don't use guns -- and are really determined to die -- tend to jump from high places, he said.

    The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has advocated for years for improved safety measures around bridges and overpasses.

    The organization contends that preventing people from carrying out acts of suicide even briefly can buy enough time to get them to change their minds.

    "Barriers work by giving individuals and those who care for them something they desperately need -- time," time to change their minds, time for someone to intervene and time to seek help," the group said in a 2010 policy paper.

    Veronica Scarpelli, the organization's Los Angeles Director, said those few moments may be enough to save somebody's life.

    "Clinicians say suicide is both planned and spontaneous," Scarpelli said. "A lot of people who die from suicide don't know when they're going to do it."

    As important as improved safety measures are, she said, is for people to develop a better understanding of the underlying mental distress that drives people to consider ending their own lives.

    "People need to understand that people die from suicide from some sort of mental problem," Scarpelli said. "It's not that they want to die. They just want to end whatever is happening."

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