Letter from California
The fatal grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge.
by Tad Friend October 13, 2003
Shortly after ten-thirty in the morning on Wednesday, March 19th, a real-estate agent named Paul Alarab began hiking across the Golden Gate Bridge. Midway along the walkway, which carries pedestrians and cyclists between San Francisco and Marin County, he stopped and climbed the four-foot safety railing. Then he lowered himself carefully onto the bridge’s outermost reach, a thirty-two-inch-wide beam known as “the chord.” It is on the chord, two hundred and twenty feet above San Francisco Bay, that people intending to kill themselves often pause. On a sunny day, as this day was, the view is glorious: Angel Island to the left, Alcatraz straight ahead, Treasure Island farther off, bisecting the long gray tangent of the Bay Bridge, and, layered across the hills to the south, San Francisco.
Alarab turned and looped a thick rope over the railing, then wound it around his right wrist five times and grabbed it with his gloved right hand. His weekday attire usually consisted of a business suit with a “Peace” T-shirt underneath, but today he wore black gloves, black shoes, black pants, a black T-shirt, and black sunglasses. Through the palings of the bridge rail and the rush of traffic, he could see the mouth of the Bay to the west and the Pacific beyond. Clasping a typed statement to his chest with his left hand, he leaned backward, away from the railing, and waited for help to arrive.
Alarab, a forty-four-year-old Iraqi-American, was a large, balding, friendly man who kept a “No Hate” sign in his office at Century 21 Heritage Real Estate in Lafayette, across the Bay. The day before, he’d told a co-worker that the prospect of civilian deaths in Iraq made him sick to his stomach. Alarab had chosen this day, the first of America’s war against Saddam Hussein, to make a statement of opposition.
Responding to a “10-31,” bridge code for a jumper, four uniformed California Highway Patrol officers soon arrived at the rail, joined by three ironworkers who had been repairing the bridge. Alarab told them that he wanted to speak to the media. As it happened, a number of TV crews were at the south end of the bridge, filming standups about heightened terrorism precautions. A Telemundo crew came out, and Alarab began to read a declaration about Iraq’s defenseless women, children, and elderly. “Wake up, America!” he said. “This war will be known as ‘the war of cowards and oil’ across the world!”
As a Coast Guard cutter idled in the fifty-five-degree water below, the bridge’s guardians tried to talk Alarab into coming up. “When CNN gets here, I’m back over the other side of the railing,” he promised. One Highway Patrol officer said, “Hey, don’t I know you?” Alarab squinted, and said, “Oh, sure!” They had met during Alarab’s previous adventure on the bridge: in 1988, seeking to publicize the plight of the handicapped and the elderly, Alarab had climbed down a sixty-foot nylon cord into a large plastic garbage can he’d suspended beneath the bridge. His weight proved too much for the apparatus, and the can broke free with him inside. “It seemed like the fall lasted forever,” Alarab said afterward. “I was praying for God to give me another chance.” The fall broke both of Alarab’s ankles and three of his ribs and collapsed his lungs, but he lived—becoming one of only twenty-six people to survive the plunge from the Golden Gate. “I’ll never put my life on the line again,” he said at the time.
Survivors often regret their decision in midair, if not before. Ken Baldwin and Kevin Hines both say they hurdled over the railing, afraid that if they stood on the chord they might lose their courage. Baldwin was twenty-eight and severely depressed on the August day in 1985 when he told his wife not to expect him home till late. “I wanted to disappear,” he said. “So the Golden Gate was the spot. I’d heard that the water just sweeps you under.” On the bridge, Baldwin counted to ten and stayed frozen. He counted to ten again, then vaulted over. “I still see my hands coming off the railing,” he said. As he crossed the chord in flight, Baldwin recalls, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”
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