St. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot
Sylvia Johnson couldn't sleep. It was just after Labor Day weekend in 2005, and she'd been plagued by insomnia throughout the summer. The 32-year-old Inver Grove Heights resident usually managed to drift off around midnight, but within a couple of hours she'd be wide awake, her mind racing with anxiety.
Johnson's troubles had been percolating for months. She'd given birth to her first child, a son, in December. She went back to work three months later, with her husband staying home to take care of their baby. It didn't go well. Johnson was one of few female employees in the engineering office. She felt self-conscious taking breaks to pump breast milk. Her manager seemed to resent the fact that she'd taken maternity leave and often belittled her job performance. She felt powerless, threatened, in danger of being terminated. Even in the hours away from the office, she obsessed over the daily humiliations of the workplace.
Johnson also suspected that she was suffering from postpartum depression. The psychological phenomenon can cripple new mothers with anxiety, insomnia, exhaustion, and low self-esteem. She was terrified of being alone with her child. Her appetite disappeared. She spoke in a listless monotone. Johnson sought out books on postpartum depression, but her mind was too cluttered by unwelcome thoughts to process the information. She feared she might be losing her ability to read.
The prior day had run completely off the rails. An interview for a new engineering job went disastrously wrong, in Johnson's warped estimation. An appointment with a new therapist only caused more anxiety. The counselor had suggested that she read David Burns's The Feeling Good Handbook—a best seller that suggests coping mechanisms for people with mild mental health issues. In Johnson's eyes, it was like a doctor advising a patient with a broken neck to pop a couple of aspirin. When Johnson arrived home that evening, she quarreled with her husband about her dismal mental state. He couldn't understand why she didn't just pull herself together.
Now in the early morning hours of September 8, 2005, Johnson was desperate to end the cycle of despair. Her head raced obsessively with the same thoughts about work and motherhood and her own inadequacies. She contemplated where she might procure a handgun, but came up empty.
Finally, Johnson downed a shot of Grant's whiskey and headed out the door into an unseasonably balmy night. She was wearing one of her husband's oversized T-shirts, a pair of Teva sandals, and underwear. She climbed into her Saturn sedan and drove through the darkened streets to a familiar landmark, the High Bridge. She'd regularly driven across the span since childhood and remembered passing under it while boating on the Mississippi River. She loved the High Bridge.
Johnson's family never had much money while she was growing up. She'd been forced to share a bedroom with her mother as a teenager after her parents divorced. This humble upbringing had inspired Johnson to make something better of her life. She'd worked her way through an engineering degree from the University of Minnesota, purchased a home while still in her early twenties, and gotten married not long after. Barely five feet tall, with shoulder-length brown hair and freckles that belied her age, Johnson hardly looked the brooding type. On the surface, her life looked sublime. She never imagined that one day she'd seek to end it all by jumping off the High Bridge.
Johnson parked her car on Cherokee Avenue and walked out onto the imposing structure, which soars some 150 feet above the roiling Mississippi River waters. At 5 a.m., the bridge was deserted—the morning commute wouldn't start for a couple of hours yet. She could see stunning views of the city's downtown skyline, the Cathedral of St. Paul, and the Mississippi River.
Looking down into the water, all she could see was inky blackness. It was a strangely comforting abyss. She climbed up onto the two-foot railing and clung to a lamppost. For the first time in months, her mind was empty.
Then she let go.
"SYLVIA JOHNSON" IS A PSEUDONYM, but her story is very real—and depressingly common. Every year more than 800,000 people in the United States try to kill themselves. That translates into one suicide attempt every 39 seconds. Worldwide, more than a million people kill themselves annually.
By far the most common method of suicide in the U.S. is firearms, accounting for roughly half of all self-inflicted fatalities. Suffocation or hanging is the second-most frequent means by which people take their own lives. Women are three times more likely than men to attempt suicide, but males are much more likely to succeed, because of their preference for reliably lethal methods such as guns. This translates into men accounting for three-quarters of the country's self-inflicted deaths.
Bridge suicides are a miniscule fraction of the overall picture, representing less than 1 percent of annual fatalities, but they tend to have an outsized resonance in the public's consciousness. Bridge suicides by their nature are public events, often disrupting traffic and leaving behind grisly evidence. The most notorious example is the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the suspension bridge spanning San Francisco Bay opened to traffic in 1937, more than 1,200 people have leaped to their deaths from it. Another fatality is added to the tragic list roughly every two weeks. The structure's strange draw was even explored in the 2006 documentary The Bridge.
The most famous bridge suicide in local lore is John Berryman's 1972 leap from the Washington Avenue Bridge. The tortured 47-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning poet waved to onlookers and then plunged to his death, landing on a pile of rocks in the Mississippi River.
But the High Bridge on Smith Avenue in St. Paul has long held a dark allure for area depressives. Towering 160 feet above the Mississippi River, with spectacular views of downtown, the steel-and-concrete bridge is one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. The phrase "taking the High Bridge as a way out" has long served as a euphemism for suicide among area residents.
This grim reputation has been reinforced in recent weeks. On December 11, 37-year-old Kirsten Girard left a suicide note for her fiancé and drove to the High Bridge. By the time her boyfriend contacted police, the Chicago native had already plunged to her death.
New Year's Eve brought another jumper. Jennifer Kingsbury and her boyfriend, Chris Yunger, were driving across the High Bridge when they came upon a pickup truck parked in the roadway on the frigid, blustery night. Pulling in front of the vehicle, they spied a man standing on the bridge's walkway. Roughly six feet tall with thinning hair, the man wore a leather jacket and held a cell phone in his hand, with one foot perched up on the bridge's railing. As the couple watched in disbelief, he climbed up on the stone structure. Yunger rolled down his window and called out to the stranger: "What are you doing?" But it was too late. "He just kind of pushed off and that was it," says Kingsbury. "We just went, 'Oh my God.'"
The couple called 911 and the St. Paul police found themselves at the High Bridge once again. The jumper was subsequently identified as 50-year-old West St. Paul-resident Robert Edward Taylor. His body has yet to be recovered.
ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 8, 2005, Bob Deck, a burly 50-year-old with a shock of gray hair, was piloting a 20-foot motorboat south on the Mississippi River. The sun was rising in the sky as rush hour traffic rumbled on the bridges above. Deck was heading for a refueling station beneath the High Bridge.
He was well versed in the rhythms of the river. For 25 years he guided tugboats through its murky waters. Now he worked seasonally for the Science Museum of Minnesota, leading groups of junior high students out on the river to conduct minnow surveys. But this morning he was alone.
Deck had seen his share of grisly sights during his decades on the water. In 1978, while driving along a road beneath the High Bridge, he spied a body lying on the asphalt ahead of him. At first the veteran waterman thought it was one of his buddies playing a joke. He honked his horn at the prone figure, but received no response. Then Deck noticed that the man's limbs were splayed out in an unnatural manner. "Things were kind of bent a little funny," Deck recounts. He called 911, but there was nothing to do but cart off the remains.
That same year, Deck was on a tugboat when he witnessed a man plunge into the water from the High Bridge. A colleague of Deck's pulled the man out of the river and dragged him to shore. As they waited for medical help, the jumper struggled to speak. Deck leaned in to hear what he had to say. "I wish I hadn't done that," the man murmured.
"He had broken both legs and both arms," Deck recalls. "He was in bad shape."
An ambulance transported the man to the hospital. Deck assumes he survived, but can't say for certain. He never saw him again.
On this balmy September morning, as Deck approached the gas dock beneath the High Bridge, something caught his eye on the shoreline. "I didn't know that it was a person right away," he says. The prone figure, roughly 50 feet away, was covered in mud and wrapped in an oversized white T-shirt.
Deck eventually discerned that it was a woman. He called out to the figure lying in the mud. "Are you able to stand up?" he asked. She managed to get to her feet, but then quickly tumbled backward.
"She was pretty dirty, and I was kind of shocked," he says. "It never occurred to me that she was a jumper. I thought maybe she was a rape victim who had been dumped there."
Deck called 911 on his cell phone, beached his boat, and approached the woman curled up on the shore. He tried to comfort her as they awaited help. The only information he was able to extract was her name.
The woman was Sylvia Johnson. After leaping from the High Bridge in the pre-dawn hours, she'd somehow managed to swim through the chilly waters to shore.
DESPITE ITS GEOGRAPHIC PROXIMITY to downtown St. Paul, the city's West Side was still something of a remote outpost as the close of the 19th century neared. The bluffs were sparsely populated by Italian immigrants; Polish shantytowns lined the flats. But the port town was in the midst of a population explosion, with the number of residents ballooning from roughly 40,000 in 1880 to more than 130,000 a decade later.
Pushed by Democratic Mayor Robert A. Smith, the construction of the High Bridge, linking the fledgling commercial corridor of West Seventh Street to the city's West Side, was controversial from its inception. Critics charged that the bridge was merely a means for politically connected businessmen who owned land on the bluffs to reap a windfall. Other opponents had more dubious reasons for questioning the necessity of the construction. "This is too much money for the six or eight Dagos who will walk over it a day," charged one disgruntled citizen in a newspaper account at the time.
In the face of this opposition, Smith, who also served as a state senator, nonetheless managed to secure $500,000 in municipal bonds to pay for the structure. Construction on the 2,770-foot span, designed by Andrew Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company, began in July of 1887.
The High Bridge opened to the public two years later. At the time, the 3,000-ton, wrought-iron span was eclipsed in length and height only by the Poughkeepsie Bridge over the Hudson River in New York. Observers, however, immediately noted a potential downside to the awe-inspiring structure. "The new bridge will be a bonanza for would-be suicides unless protected in some manner more effective than the ordinary rail," the St. Paul Daily Globe noted at the time.
Sure enough, it didn't take long for area depressives to seize on the High Bridge as a dramatic perch from which to commit suicide. Shortly after the structure opened, a reporter for the Daily Globe described encountering a woman, who he believed to be a prostitute, peering over the railing at the murky river waters below. As he watched her place one foot up on the railing, apparently preparing to jump, he cried out, "Ho there!" The woman stopped and said, "I've been looking down into that cursed black hell for an hour past and I can't gather courage to let myself drop!"
In the ensuing decades, others proved more successful at taking the plunge. On May 18, 1893, at 2:15 p.m., a 12-year-old boy named J.M. Karl was crossing the High Bridge when he was stopped by a man driving a horse-drawn carriage. "I want you to take this horse and buggy home for me," the man instructed. The gentleman handed Karl a piece of paper with the address 419 S. Grove Street, along with a letter, then proceeded to hurl himself over the side of the bridge.
The jumper was Charles S. Rogers, president of the St. Paul Cordage Company and one of the city's wealthiest residents. The New York Times offered a couple of theories for his suicide—business failings, domestic trouble—but settled on "mental aberration" as the most likely culprit. "Rogers had been busy almost night and day for over a year getting the cordage plant in operation, and it is believed this severe work unbalanced his mind," the newspaper speculated.
A 1904 storm, reportedly registering winds of 180 miles per hour, sent pieces of the High Bridge flying 100 yards downstream. The structure was closed for nearly a year, requiring $61,000 in repairs.
The jumpers returned almost as soon as it reopened. In April 1934, Frank Walter Burnett learned that his wife had filed for divorce. He didn't take the news well. Burnett fired two shots at her before the gun jammed. He proceeded to climb into his car, drive to the High Bridge, and jump off. He landed on a concrete pier and died. A brief, front-page story in the Pioneer Press detailing his death was headlined "Shoots at Wife, Leaps to Death." Burnett's widow went on to marry the man with whom she'd been having an affair.
Perhaps the oddest suicide associated with the High Bridge occurred in 1979. On August 23, 15-year-old St. Paul resident Eddie Seidel Jr. was despondent over the cancellation of his favorite television program, Battlestar Galactica. He wrote to ABC asking that they reconsider the decision, to no avail.
There were other signs all was not well with the teenager. His father had recently learned that Eddie had been sniffing gas with friends, and sent him to counseling. "The psychiatrist said he was just kind of bored with life, that there was nothing here for him to excel in," his father later told the Associated Press. "There was no real challenge here on this earth."
Roughly three weeks after the final rerun of Battlestar Galactica aired, Seidel returned home from his job as a supermarket stock boy and retreated to his room. He scrawled a last will and testament and sped off on his moped toward the High Bridge. Police officers responding to the scene attempted to talk the troubled teenager down, but he couldn't be dissuaded from his grim mission. Seidel jumped to his death, landing on the ground below. His family arrived at the scene 10 minutes after the fateful leap.
"I hope we never ever see [Battlestar Galactica] on TV again, because it would just crush us," his mother, Dawn Seidel, said at the time.
The High Bridge was again closed in 1984, by engineers from the Minnesota Department of Transportation who feared that it wasn't structurally sound. West Side residents held a funeral for the structure, complete with a hearse and flowers tossed into the Mississippi River. On February 24, 1985, roughly 25,000 people gathered to watch the talismanic bridge get leveled by 76 pounds of plastic explosives.
"You almost didn't hear it at much as feel it," recalls St. Paul City Council member Dave Thune, who represents the area. "I've never been in a war, but I can imagine that might be what it would be like to have shells dropping around you."
Original plans for the bridge's replacement called for a generic concrete structure. "It was just going to be a ribbon of concrete," recalls Betty Moran, who's been a community organizer with the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation for more than two decades. "They didn't even want to put sidewalks on the bridge."
But fervent neighborhood opposition to the bland blueprint eventually resulted in marked changes. Iron from the original structure was incorporated into the design. Stone walkways were built on each side of the two-lane roadway. The reconstructed High Bridge opened two years later.
The rebuilt span hasn't been able to shake the tragic legacy of its forbearer. In the last two decades, the High Bridge has once again proven to be a siren for thedepressed. Exact numbers on how many people have jumped off the structure over the years are difficult to come by, but St. Paul police were dispatched to the structure seven times in 2007 to investigate potential suicides. In three instances, the person succeeded.
Despite this tragic history, there's never been any organized effort to install an anti-suicide railing. Studies have repeatedly shown that such safeguards are effective in preventing suicides. The Memorial Bridge in Augusta, Maine, for example, was the site of 14 suicides between 1960 and 1983, no doubt due in part to its proximity to a state psychiatric hospital. After a safety fence was installed that year, the number of self-inflicted deaths dropped to zero for the next two decades. According to a 2006 report in the scientific journal Injury Prevention, "there was no evidence that suicidal individuals sought alternative sites for jumping."
Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), a suicide-prevention organization based in Bloomington, says he would support installing protective barriers on the High Bridge as well as any other area bridges. "They do prevent suicide," he says. "When someone is suffering from any mental illness and they're suicidal, it's a short amount of time frame when they're acutely suicidal. There's a lot of ambivalence that leads right up to the suicide."
SYLVIA JOHNSON WAS BRUISED nearly from head to toe. Mud was lodged deep under her nails. She didn't remember anything after leaping from the bridge.
An ambulance sped her across downtown to Regions Hospital. Because she had swum through frigid waters, her body temperature was just 90 degrees. She had a lacerated liver and a bruised kidney. But remarkably, she hadn't broken a single bone.
"They didn't know what to think of me," says Johnson. "Any time someone had done this in the past, they were dealing with someone who was a quadriplegic for life. You don't just walk away from that."
When Johnson first regained her senses at Regions Hospital, she was mortified. What would her family think? How would she explain this to friends and colleagues? Would she lose her job?
But that sense of humiliation was soon overwhelmed by physical agony.
"When I was conscious there was pain, extreme pain," she says. "It wasn't the kind of acute pain where you burn your hand and you pull away. It was a constant, dull, ever-present pain. It hurt to breathe."
Johnson spent roughly a week in intensive care, where doctors performed arthroscopic surgery to repair her liver. She was fed pain medicine intravenously to dull the ache.
On the mend, she was transferred to the hospital's 10th-floor psych ward. Though her body was healing, her mind was still suspect. She wasn't allowed to keep her iPod for fear she'd hang herself with the ear buds' cord. Her young son wasn't permitted to visit. She was put on antidepressants and started meeting with a psychiatrist.
Johnson finally returned home in early October. The bruises on her body took two months to fade. Even after they had disappeared, every sneeze and cough brought shockwaves of pain.
The depression that had sent her plunging off the bridge was even slower to dissipate. She hardly ate. She had no sense of humor. She took sedatives to fall asleep at night. She couldn't concentrate long enough to watch a movie or read a book.
"I seriously would get up in the morning and I was so excited when evening would start to fall and I knew that pretty soon I could take my meds and go to sleep and that would put me out of my misery," she says. "It was painful to be conscious."
Later that month, Johnson started an outpatient treatment program at Hennepin County Medical Center for survivors of traumatic events. One woman in the group had lost a daughter due to blood loss during childbirth. Another man had been attacked and stabbed by people he'd invited into his home.
The next month Johnson returned to work. Colleagues were told she'd been in a car accident. She dreaded returning to the toxic workplace that she partially blamed for her mental breakdown. But luckily she didn't have to stay there long. By the end of the year she had secured a new engineering job in downtown St. Paul, where she continues to work to this day.
A few months after Johnson's fateful plunge, she tracked down Bob Deck through the Science Museum. She didn't trust her own murky memory about what had transpired that morning. "I actually wanted to know that he really existed," she says.
Johnson met him at the museum one day after work. The unlikely pair awkwardly shook hands. They chatted on a bench in an exhibit room, the High Bridge visible from the windows. She peppered Deck with questions: What time did he come upon her? Where exactly had she come ashore? What did she say? She tried in vain to explain to him why a seemingly healthy, happy, 32-year-old mom had flung herself off the High Bridge.
Although Johnson credits him with saving her life, Deck insists that what he did was no big deal. "I can't really wear a hero hat for that," he says. "She saved herself."
Today, Johnson shows no visible scars from her suicide attempt. Seated at a Dunn Bros coffee shop in St. Paul on a recent Friday afternoon, she's dressed casually in jeans and a red sweater. She laughs often recalling that harrowing night on the High Bridge. "I wouldn't recommend it," she says of jumping off the bridge.
Despite a surrounding crowd of coffee drinkers, she speaks with no inhibitions. Less than three years have passed, but it's as if she's telling a tale about some other person's life. "I knew that the end was coming," she says. "I could feel it. It was imminent." Now 34 and expecting her second child, Johnson wants to share her story in hopes that it somehow will help prevent other people from making the same awful choice.
The path back from suicidal despondency wasn't traversed overnight. For months she obsessed over her narrow escape from death. She couldn't understand why she'd been spared. Occasionally the urge to end her life resurfaced. But she'd promised friends and family that she wouldn't attempt suicide again. Somehow that was enough to pull her through.
The High Bridge, visible each morning as she drove to work, continued to haunt her. To this day she doesn't feel comfortable walking over it alone. But at least now she can drive across the structure without feeling extreme anxiety.
"It is like an event horizon, like a black hole," Johnson says. "The closer you are to it the stronger it is. But the further away you get the less you feel it. It's really fading now, just into a series of memories."
Where to go for help
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education
This Bloomington-based nonprofit runs grief-support programs, a speaker's bureau, and continuing education programs for mental health professionals.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
This 24-hour, toll-free hotline is linked up with 120 crisis centers across the country. Its mission is to provide immediate help to anyone seeking mental health services.
American Association of Suicidology
This national nonprofit group seeks to understand and prevent suicide. It provides services to suicide survivors, puts together conferences on mental health issues, and supports research into suicide prevention.
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