“I’m falling head-first, and I immediately recognize that if I hit head-first, I will die,” he said recently.
Hines had depression and bipolar disorder and came to the bridge because he thought it would be the easiest way to die. As soon as he cleared the railing, however, a new feeling came over him: regret.
In midair, he maneuvered himself so that his legs would hit the water first.
Hines fell 220 feet at about 75 miles per hour. The impact from a fall like that is similar to hitting concrete. The contact shattered two of his vertebrae, and doctors later told him that he was only 2 millimeters away from severing his spine.
In excruciating pain, Hines struggled to the surface and felt a creature nudging at him.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces you to people who have overcome medical challenges and, by following their passions, have made bold changes in their lives.
“I punched it because I thought it was a shark coming to eat me, but it helped me stay afloat until the Coast Guard came.”
Later, a witness told him it was a sea lion that helped him that day – the day he took “the worst action” of his life and turned it into a new mission. His second act would be devoted to suicide prevention. One of his biggest goals: getting a net on the Golden Gate Bridge to help save those who jump.
Dark side of the Golden Gate
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world’s most recognizable structures, but the historic landmark has a dark history. According to the Bridge Rail Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping suicide at public facilities, since the bridge’s opening in 1937, there have been more than 1,700 confirmed suicides and 300 unconfirmed. The foundation also estimates that, on average, the Bridge Patrol or the California Highway Patrol stops someone from jumping every two or three days.
Hines says suicidal tendencies are very hard to escape. “Emotional pain is 300,000 times worse than physical pain. It’s the enemy within that you cannot defy. When I was on that bridge, the voices in my head were screaming that I had to die.”
In the past two decades, the suicide rate in the United States has gone up 33%, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it the No. 2 cause of death in this country for people 10 to 34. It’s why Hines and his wife, Margaret, started a foundation that seeks to educate and train communities across the country on mental wellness and suicide prevention.
“We live in a society of apathy,” he said. “When people see a stranger in pain, they say, ‘That’s not my problem.’ I disagree.”
On the day Hines attempted suicide, he had made a pact with himself: If anyone engaged him, asked whether he was OK, he would not have jumped.
“If you see someone in pain, it’s your duty to walk up and engage and just try to get them to open up to you and try to share what is going on in their mind. You can be a conduit for change.”
Since that day in 2000, the Bridge Rail Foundation says, 571 people have died jumping from the bridge. But there may be an end to the loss of life: The safety net that Hines has fought for is under construction. It’s set to be complete in 2021.
“That bridge is a harbinger of death, as beautiful as it is, but it won’t be after 2021,” he said.
Upon seeing segments of the net for first time, Hines was moved to tears.
“This is one of the most special days of my life.”