Minneapolis St, Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot ...

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St. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot
Ever since the original High Bridge was built in 1889, it's been a magnet for people seeking to end their lives
By Paul Demko
published: February
06, 2008

I 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

The High Bridge was rebuilt in the mid-'8os after engineers determined that it wasn't structurally sound

Nick Vlcek




On the surface. Phone: 202. Every year more than 800.237. Paul. om/contentiprintVersionl378919/ c c Handbook-a best seller that suggests coping mechanisms for people with mild mental health issues. all she could see was inky blackness. She'd been forced to share a bedroom with her mother as a teenager after her parents divorced. the bridge was deserted-the morning commute wouldn't start for a couple of hours yet.. Her head raced obsessively with the same thoughts about work and motherhood and her own inadequacies.Minneapolis St. which soars some 150 feet above the roiling Mississippi River waters. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot . with shoulder-length brown hair and freckles that belied her age. Barely five feet tall. Johnson hardly looked the brooding type. and continuing education programs for mental health professionals. Johnson downed a shot of Grant's whiskey and headed out the door into an unseasonably balmy night. together. She'd regularly driven across the span since childhood and remembered passing under it while boating on the Mississippi River. Worldwide. "SYLVIA JOHNSON" IS A PSEUDONYM.2280 Looking down into the water. purchased a home while still in her early twenties. but her story is very real-and depressingly common. nonprofit runs grief-support programs. Phone: 800. itypages . I she quarreled with her husband about her dismal mental I state. the Cathedral of St.7998 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: This 24-hour. Its mission is to provide immediate help to anyone seeking mental health services. She'd worked her way through an engineering degree from the University of Minnesota. her life looked sublime.. She was wearing one of her husband's oversized T-shirts. puts together conferences on mental health issues.273.. She could see stunning views of the city's downtown skyline. She never imagined that one day she'd seek to end it all by jumping off the High Bridge. She climbed into her Saturn sedan and drove through the darkened streets to a familiar landmark. Johnson parked her car on Cherokee Avenue and walked out onto the imposing structure. but came up empty. a pair of Teva sandals. She contemplated where she might procure a handgun. Johnson was desperate to end the cycle of despair. the High Bridge. her mind was empty.946. This humble upbringing had inspired Johnson to make something better of her life. a speaker's bureau. and gotten married not long after. It provides services to suicide survivors. more than a million people kill themselves 2of8 10/29/20113:45 PM . and underwear. She climbed up onto the two-foot railing and clung to a lamppost.8255 Alnerican Association of Suicidology: This national nonprofit group seeks to understand and prevent suicide. It was a strangely comforting abyss.City Pages http://www . When Johnson arrived home that evening. Finally. He couldn't understand why she didn't just pull herself . Then she let go. That translates into one suicide attempt every 39 seconds. At 5 a. Bob Deck discovered the badly bruised body of Sylvia Johnson on the Mississippi River shoreline io September 2005 i Details: I WHERE TO GO FOR HELP I SA\Tli: This Bloomington-based Now in the early morning hours of September 8. Johnson's family never had much money while she was growing up. In Johnson's eyes. Phone: 952. and supports research into suicide prevention. and the Mississippi River. it was like a doctor advising a patient with a broken neck to pop a couple of aspirin. She loved the High Bridge.000 people in the United States try to kill themselves. For the first time in months. toll-free hotline is linked up with 120 crisis centers across the country. 2005.m.

Bridge suicides are a miniscule fraction of the overall picture.com/contentiprintVersionl378919/ annually. the Chicago native had already plunged to her death. Yunger rolled down his window and called out to the stranger: "What are you doing?" But it was too late.''' The couple called 911 and the St. The tortured 47-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning poet waved to onlookers and then plunged to his death. Pulling in front of the vehicle. was piloting a zo-foot motorboat south on the Mississippi River. ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 8.37-year-old Kirsten Girard left a suicide note for her fiance and drove to the High Bridge. representing less than 1 percent of annual fatalities. Another fatality is added to the tragic list roughly every two weeks. "He just kind of pushed off and that was it. But the High Bridge on Smith Avenue in St.City Pages http://www. more than 1. As the couple watched in disbelief. blustery night. the man wore a leather jacket and held a cell phone in his hand. is firearms. he climbed up on the stone structure. because of their preference for reliably lethal methods such as guns. By the time her boyfriend contacted police. 2005. the steeland-concrete bridge is one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. Deck was heading for a refueling station beneath the High Bridge. while driving along a 30f8 10/29/2011 3:45 PM . Since the suspension bridge spanning San Francisco Bay opened to traffic in 1937. Roughly six feet tall with thinning hair. Now he worked seasonally for the Science Museum of Minnesota. Bridge suicides by their nature are public events. Paul-resident Robert Edward Taylor. For 25 years he guided tugboats through its murky waters. In 1978. The phrase "taking the High Bridge as a way out" has long served as a euphemism for suicide among area residents. On December 11. The structure's strange draw was even explored in the 2006 documentary The Bridge." says Kingsbury. He was well versed in the rhythms of the river. This translates into men accounting for three-quarters of the country's self-inflicted deaths. but they tend to have an outsized resonance in the public's consciousness. Paul has long held a dark allure for area depressives. New Year's Eve brought another jumper. Suffocation or hanging is the second-most frequent means by which people take their own lives. with one foot perched up on the bridge's railing. By far the most common method of suicide in the u. but males are much more likely to succeed. Bob Deck. with spectacular views of downtown. Jennifer Kingsbury and her boyfriend. "We just went. a burly 50-year-old with a shock of gray hair. landing on a pile of rocks in the Mississippi River. often disrupting traffic and leaving behind grisly evidence. But this morning he was alone. Deck had seen his share of grisly sights during his decades on the water. accounting for roughly half of all self-inflicted fatalities. His body has yet to be recovered. This grim reputation has been reinforced in recent weeks. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot . The most notorious example is the Golden Gate Bridge. The most famous bridge suicide in local lore is John Berryman's 1972 leap from the Washington Avenue Bridge. The sun was rising in the sky as rush hour traffic rumbled on the bridges above.200 people have leaped to their deaths from it.s. Chris Yunger. The jumper was subsequently identified as 50-year-old West St.citypages. were driving across the High Bridge when they came upon a pickup truck parked in the roadway on the frigid. Paul police found themselves at the High Bridge once again. 'Oh my God. they spied a man standing on the bridge's walkway. Women are three times more likely than men to attempt suicide. leading groups of junior high students out on the river to conduct minnow surveys.Minneapolis St. Towering 160 feet above the Mississippi River.

was covered in mud and wrapped in an oversized white T-shirt. "I didn't know that it was a person right away. Deck leaned in to hear what he had to say." Deck called 911 on his cell phone. Polish shantytowns lined the flats. At the time. After leaping from the High Bridge in the pre-dawn hours. "It never occurred to me that she was a jumper. "Things were kind of bent a little funny.City Pages http://www. He called out to the figure lying in the mud.com/contenVprintVersion!378919/ road beneath the High Bridge. the construction of the High Bridge. On this balmy September morning. nonetheless managed to secure $500. as Deck approached the gas dock beneath the High Bridge. Deck was on a tugboat when he witnessed a man plunge into the water from the High Bridge. but there was nothing to do but cart off the remains. "He had broken both legs and both arms. In the face of this opposition. That same year. He called 911. something caught his eye on the shoreline.000 in 1880 to more than 130. He tried to comfort her as they awaited help. "He was in bad shape. As they waited for medical help. but then quickly tumbled backward." Deck recalls." An ambulance transported the man to the hospital. Construction on the 2. I thought maybe she was a rape victim who had been dumped there." Deck recounts.770-foot span." the man murmured. and approached the woman curled up on the shore.citypages. who also served as a state senator. "She was pretty dirty. the 3. Smith. She managed to get to her feet." charged one disgruntled citizen in a newspaper account at the time. The prone figure. Then Deck noticed that the man's limbs were splayed out in an unnatural manner. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot . but can't say for certain. the city's West Side was still something of a remote outpost as the close of the roth century neared. Other opponents had more dubious reasons for questioning the necessity of the construction. He honked his horn at the prone figure. linking the fledgling commercial corridor of West Seventh Street to the city's West Side. Smith. "This is too much money for the six or eight Dagos who will walk over it a day. designed by Andrew Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company. Pushed by Democratic Mayor Robert A. At first the veteran waterman thought it was one of his buddies playing a joke." he says. The woman was Sylvia Johnson.. was controversial from its inception. with the number of residents ballooning from roughly 40. he spied a body lying on the asphalt ahead of him. But the port town was in the midst of a population explosion. and I was kind of shocked. beached his boat. but received no response. A colleague of Deck's pulled the man out of the river and dragged him to shore. Critics charged that the bridge was merely a means for politically connected businessmen who owned land on the bluffs to reap a windfall. she'd somehow managed to swim through the chilly waters to shore. The only information he was able to extract was her name. roughly 50 feet away. "Are you able to stand up?" he asked.Minneapolis St. The High Bridge opened to the public two years later. began in July of 1887.000-ton. the jumper struggled to speak. wrought-iron span 40f8 10/29/20113:45 PM . "I wish I hadn't done that. Deck eventually discerned that it was a woman. Paul.000 a decade later. He never saw him again. DESPITE ITS GEOGRAPHIC PROXIMIlY to downtown St." he says. Deck assumes he survived.. The bluffs were sparsely populated by Italian immigrants.000 in municipal bonds to pay for the structure.

because it would just crush us. He landed on a concrete pier and died. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot . His father had recently learned that Eddie had been sniffing gas with friends. a reporter for the Daily Globe described encountering a woman. immediately noted a potential downside to the awe-inspiring structure. peering over the railing at the murky river waters below. Grove Street. Seidel jumped to his death. sent pieces of the High Bridge flying 100 yards downstream." Burnett's widow went on to marry the man with whom she'd been having an affair. The New York Times offered a couple of theories for his suicide-business failings. The jumper was Charles S. "Ho there!" The woman stopped and said. He proceeded to climb into his car. Paul Daily Globe noted at the time. said at the time. On May 18. reportedly registering winds of 180 miles per hour. The structure was closed for nearly a year. apparently preparing to jump. Observers. that there was nothing here for him to excel in. Paul Cordage Company and one of the city's wealthiest residents. Perhaps the oddest suicide associated with the High Bridge occurred in 1979. however. requiring $61. 5 of8 10/29/2011 3:45 PM . A brief. along with a letter." the man instructed.1893.000 in repairs. at 2:15 p. "I hope we never ever see [Battlestar Galactica] on TV again. He wrote to ABC asking that they reconsider the decision. Rogers. "There was no real challenge here on this earth. Sure enough." Roughly three weeks after the final rerun of Battlestar Galactica aired. "Rogers had been busy almost night and day for over a year getting the cordage plant in operation.. On August 23. and jump off. Seidel returned home from his job as a supermarket stock boy and retreated to his room. The gentleman handed Karl a piece of paper with the address 419 S. Police officers responding to the scene attempted to talk the troubled teenager down. Frank Walter Burnett learned that his wife had filed for divorce. but he couldn't be dissuaded from his grim mission. then proceeded to hurl himself over the side of the bridge." the newspaper speculated. Burnett fired two shots at her before the gun jammed.m. "The new bridge will be a bonanza for would-be suicides unless protected in some manner more effective than the ordinary rail.City Pages http://www. He didn't take the news well. president of the St. 15-year-old St. A 1904 storm. he cried out. Battlestar Galactica. Dawn Seidel. He scrawled a last will and testament and sped off on his moped toward the High Bridge. landing on the ground below.citypages . omicontentiprintVersion!378919/ c was eclipsed in length and height only by the Poughkeepsie Bridge over the Hudson River in New York. others proved more successful at taking the plunge. His family arrived at the scene 10 minutes after the fateful leap. In April 1934. Shortly after the structure opened.." his father later told the Associated Press. drive to the High Bridge.Minneapolis St. who he believed to be a prostitute. to no avail. "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. and it is believed this severe work unbalanced his mind. "I want you to take this horse and buggy home for me. The jumpers returned almost as soon as it reopened. "The psychiatrist said he was just kind of bored with life. There were other signs all was not well with the teenager." the St. As he watched her place one foot up on the railing. and sent him to counseling." his mother. it didn't take long for area depressives to seize on the High Bridge as a dramatic perch from which to commit suicide. front-page story in the Pioneer Press detailing his death was headlined "Shoots at Wife. Paul resident Eddie Seidel Jr. domestic trouble-but settled on "mental aberration" as the most likely culprit. was despondent over the cancellation of his favorite television program.M. a iz-year-old boy named J. Leaps to Death. Karl was crossing the High Bridge when he was stopped by a man driving a horse-drawn carriage.

she was mortified. "They didn't even want to put sidewalks on the bridge. West Side residents held a funeral for the structure. You don't just walk away from that. itypages. The reconstructed High Bridge opened two years later. was the site of 14 suicides between 1960 and 1983.City Pages http://www .comlcontentiprintVersionl378919/ c The High Bridge was again closed in 1984. The Memorial Bridge in Augusta." he says. "Any time someone had done this in the past. who's been a community organizer with the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation for more than two decades. There's a lot of ambivalence that leads right up to the suicide. Stone walkways were built on each side of the two-lane roadway. there's never been any organized effort to install an anti-suicide railing." SYLVIA JOHNSON WAS BRUISED nearly from head to toe. What would her family think? How would she explain this to friends and colleagues? Would she lose her job? 6 of8 10/29/2011 3:45 PM . 1985. who represents the area. says he would support installing protective barriers on the High Bridge as well as any other area bridges. "there was no evidence that suicidal individuals sought alternative sites for jumping. "I've never been in a war. In three instances." recalls St. Maine.. "When someone is suffering from any mental illness and they're suicidal. Mud was lodged deep under her nails. but I can imagine that might be what it would be like to have shells dropping around you." Daniel Reidenberg. Because she had swum through frigid waters. She didn't remember anything after leaping from the bridge. "It was just going to be a ribbon of concrete. She had a lacerated liver and a bruised kidney. Paul City Council member Dave Thune." Original plans for the bridge's replacement called for a generic concrete structure. roughly 25. ''You almost didn't hear it at much as feel it. After a safety fence was installed that year. In the last two decades. According to a 2006 report in the scientific journal Injury Prevention. by engineers from the Minnesota Department of Transportation who feared that it wasn't structurally sound. but St.Minneapolis St. she hadn't broken a single bone. a suicideprevention organization based in Bloomington. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot ." When Johnson first regained her senses at Regions Hospital. the High Bridge has once again proven to be a siren for thedepressed." But fervent neighborhood opposition to the bland blueprint eventually resulted in marked changes. Iron from the original structure was incorporated into the design. no doubt due in part to its proximity to a state psychiatric hospital. the person succeeded. Paul police were dispatched to the structure seven times in 2007 to investigate potential suicides." says Johnson. Despite this tragic history. her body temperature was just 90 degrees. But remarkably. The rebuilt span hasn't been able to shake the tragic legacy of its forbearer. Exact numbers on how many people have jumped off the structure over the years are difficult to come by. the number of self-inflicted deaths dropped to zero for the next two decades. for example." recalls Betty Moran. it's a short amount of time frame when they're acutely suicidal. they were dealing with someone who was a quadriplegic for life. executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE). On February 24.000 people gathered to watch the talismanic bridge get leveled by 76 pounds of plastic explosives. Studies have repeatedly shown that such safeguards are effective in preventing suicides. An ambulance sped her across downtown to Regions Hospital. complete with a hearse and flowers tossed into the Mississippi River. "They didn't know what to think of me. "They do prevent suicide.

" Today. It was imminent. On the mend." Now 34 and expecting her second child. Despite a surrounding crowd of coffee drinkers. She hardly ate. She laughs often recalling that harrowing night on the High Bridge. Another man had been attacked and stabbed by people he'd invited into his home. She took sedatives to fall asleep at night. But luckily she didn't have to stay there long. Johnson met him at the museum one day after work. ever-present pain. "I could feel it. Colleagues were told she'd been in a car accident. every sneeze and cough brought shockwaves of pain. She wasn't allowed to keep her iPod for fear she'd hang herself with the ear buds' cord. dull. happy. 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. It hurt to breathe. she speaks with no inhibitions. her mind was still suspect." she says. "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. extreme pain. "When I was conscious there was pain. "I knew that the end was coming. Less than three years have passed. Deck insists that what he did was no big deal. It was a constant. Seated at a Dunn Bros coffee shop in St." he says. They chatted on a bench in an exhibit room. she was transferred to the hospital's roth-floor psych ward. She dreaded returning to the toxic workplace that she partially blamed for her mental breakdown. A few months after Johnson's fateful plunge." she says of jumping off the bridge. She was put on antidepressants and started meeting with a psychiatrist. she's dressed casually in jeans and a red sweater. "It was painful to be conscious. She couldn't concentrate long enough to watch a movie or read a book. Johnson finally returned home in early October. The depression that had sent her plunging off the bridge was even slower to dissipate. "I can't really wear a hero hat for that.Minneapolis St. The unlikely pair awkwardly shook hands. Paul on a recent Friday afternoon. She didn't trust her own murky memory about what had transpired that morning. where doctors performed arthroscopic surgery to repair her liver." Later that month. "I wouldn't recommend it. 32-year-old mom had flung herself off the High Bridge. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot .City Pages http://www . she tracked down Bob Deck through the Science Museum. but it's as if she's telling a tale about some other person's life. "It wasn't the kind of acute pain where you burn your hand and you pull away. She had no sense of humor. The bruises on her body took two months to fade. By the end of the year she had secured a new engineering job in downtown St. Although Johnson credits him with saving her life. "She saved herself. The next month Johnson returned to work. "I actually wanted to know that he really existed. Her young son wasn't permitted to visit. Johnson 7 of8 10/29/2011 3:45 PM . One woman in the group had lost a daughter due to blood loss during childbirth.citypages"com/contentiprintVersionl3789191 But that sense of humiliation was soon overwhelmed by physical agony. Johnson shows no visible scars from her suicide attempt." she says." Johnson spent roughly a week in intensive care." she says. Though her body was healing. She was fed pain medicine intravenously to dull the ache. Paul. Even after they had disappeared. the High Bridge visible from the windows. Johnson started an outpatient treatment program at Hennepin County Medical Center for survivors of traumatic events. where she continues to work to this day.

For months she obsessed over her narrow escape from death.org Phone: 952.946.7998 National Suicide Prevention lifeline This 24-hour. But at least now she can drive across the structure without feeling extreme anxiety.2280 80f8 10/29/2011 3:45 PM . It's really fading now. Website: www.City Pages http://www . Phone: 800.org Phone: 202. The High Bridge. itypages. "It is like an event horizon. like a black hole. The path back from suicidal despondency wasn't traversed overnight. It provides services to suicide survivors." Where to go for help Suicide Awareness Voices of Education This Bloomington-based nonprofit runs grief-support programs.237.com/contentiprintVersionl378919/ c wants to share her story in hopes that it somehow will help prevent other people from making the same awful choice. But the further away you get the less you feel it. and continuing education programs for mental health professionals. She couldn't understand why she'd been spared. just into a series of memories. Somehow that was enough to pull her through.273. But she'd promised friends and family that she wouldn't attempt suicide again. Website: www." Johnson says.suicidology.8255 American Association of Suicidology This national nonprofit group seeks to understand and prevent suicide. puts together conferences on mental health issues. To this day she doesn't feel comfortable walking over it alone.save. continued to haunt her. "The closer you are to it the stronger it is. 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. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot . and supports research into suicide prevention.. Occasionally the urge to end her life resurfaced. a speaker's bureau. visible each morning as she drove to work.Minneapolis St.