Chasing Death: Understanding a Friend's Suicide

Independent producer Jake Warga recalls his friend Phil, who killed himself a year ago by leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Warga tries to understand Phil's death and glean a little understanding about his own life.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Some dive, but most jump. Some face the open ocean to the west, but most face east. Some leap from near the shore of San Francisco or near the hills of Marin County. But most of those who end their lives on the Golden Gate Bridge choose the center, between the two giant orange towers. Over the years thousands have leapt over the side. Independent producer Jake Warga knew one of them, who died last year.

JAKE WARGA reporting:

It takes four seconds after jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge to hit the ocean 220 feet below. A year ago my friend Phil(ph) was riding his bicycle over the bridge. About midspan he stopped, took off his helmet and jumped to his death. One 1,000, two 1,000, three 1,000, four 1,000. Phil was 33 years old; we're the same age. One 1,000.

I first met Phil four years ago when he called to tell me his brother Brian(ph), my good friend from college, had killed himself. Brian was 32 when he injected a lethal dose of morphine. Standing in Brian's room where he killed himself, the odor of death unmistakable and horrible, Phil and I started the task of cleaning. Phil lost a brother and I lost a friend that day. We filled the void with each other. Soon we were signing our e-mails `bro.'

When Phil's girlfriend called me crying, I knew. Part of me hoped it was a bike accident; that he was just hurt; that all this ended with Brian. Their mother killed herself when they were toddlers. Unlike his brother, Phil didn't leave any notes or hints he was even thinking about killing himself. He was planning on visiting me in one month. I saved his message.

(Soundbite of recording)

PHIL: Jake, it's Phil. Umm, trying to warn you that Sarah(ph) and I are going to, like, come up for a visit. Anyway, let me know how that sits with you. I'll talk to you. Goodbye.

WARGA: Two 1,000. I held Phil's hand in the morgue. It was so cold. I stared at his sleeping eyes and bruised face wondering, `Why?'

(Soundbite of music)

WARGA: After getting Phil's backpack from the coroner's in a dripping shopping bag, we spread the contents out to dry back at his apartment. Nothing--no note, no clue. We found his van parked in the presidio just up from the Golden Gate Bridge, where he usually left it to go biking. This is the CD that was playing when we started the engine. It's a British group called The Stars.

(Soundbite of song)

THE STARS: (Singing) ...numbs the pain, sends you gently for the fall.

WARGA: Three 1,000. After leaving Phil at the morgue, I walked out onto the Golden Gate Bridge and sat down midspan away from the bikers and joggers. It looks peaceful and majestic on postcards, but it's a really noisy place. It's a highway, the 101.

(Soundbite of traffic)

WARGA: It's hard not to jump. The railing is only four feet high. The original plans had it at five and a half feet. One theory for the difference is that the chief engineer of the bridge, Joseph Strauss, was only 5' tall, and he wanted to see over the rail.

Maybe because it's named after the sunset, it's the world's most popular suicide destination. Since it opened in 1937, over 1,300 people have jumped and a lot more if you count those who may have jumped at night and disappeared with the tide. There's always talk of a barrier to prevent people from jumping. In 1977, a huge rally was staged, and a minister named Jim Jones said that the bridge is, quote, "a symbol of human ingenuity, technological ingenious but a social failure." Later he left the Bay area and moved to Jonestown, Guyana.

(Soundbite of the ocean)

WARGA: The color of the bridge is orange vermillion, international orange. It's the same color as the carpet in the funeral home and the church, where they had Phil's service. It reminds me of the color of dried blood.

(Soundbite of traffic)

WARGA: Four 1,000. When you hit the water, it's at 75 miles per hour, 15,000 pounds per square inch. The only way to survive is to hit feet first at a slight angle. Otherwise you go straight down and drown. Very few have survived the jump.

Mr. JOHN KEVIN HINES: And I kept saying to myself, `Don't jump, don't jump, don't jump. It's a bad idea. You'll die. There's no coming back from this.'

WARGA: John Kevin Hines was 18 when he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000 and survived. I thought maybe he would have the answer or at least some insight into why Phil jumped.

Mr. HINES: And I said to myself, `If one person says, "Are you OK?" I won't do it, and I'll spill my guts and I'll tell them everything that's going on in my head. But if nobody says anything, I'm going to jump.' So I stood there, and that's when the woman came up to me. And I thought, `OK, great. She's going to ask me if I'm OK. I'll tell her everything. She'll call somebody. Everything's going to be fine.' She comes out and goes, `Will you take my picture?' I'm a nice guy. I was like, `All right. Yeah, sure. No problem.' Then I wiped the tears out of my eyes. She didn't even notice. So I took her picture, gave her camera back; she walked away. I turned around. I cursed at the world. And I said, `Nobody cares,' and I jumped. Second I was on free-fall, I said, `I don't want to die. This is ridiculous.'

I was falling headfirst, and I somehow got feet-first. I hit the water. So I swam to the surface, not knowing where exactly I was, but I just swam to the light. I was lucky that the Coast Guard was already right near me.

WARGA: I wanted to hear Phil in Kevin, hear him say that he would never try to kill himself again, apologize for hurting us.

Mr. HINES: You know what? I gotta tell you that I'm very happy right now. I got two arms, two legs and I'm awake. I didn't die today, and I didn't die that day. I will never attempt again, never.

WARGA: Phil was a pathologist. He was a brilliant doctor. He could look at a biopsy slide under the microscope and tell you how you're going to die, see into the secrets of life from just a few cells. I asked him once, `What is life?'

(Soundbite of recording)

PHIL: Life as I see it under the microscope? It's a big mix of goo. (Laughs)

WARGA: My recorder broke about a minute into the interview. The more I chase death, the more I choke on the only thing it leaves in its wake: questions. I was nowhere closer to understanding why Phil jumped, and I was closer to realizing that there might not be any meaning.

I needed a break, so my best friend, Jen, and I went down the coast to Monterey for a night. It was late, midnight. We were walking on a small beach in front of the hotel. Then--bang--I broke into a sprint right out into the darkness. When I came to the black water, I didn't stop. `Oh, my God, what the hell are you'--were the last words I heard before I plunged into absolute salty silence and freezing darkness.

One 1,000.

It was cold, really cold.

Two 1,000.

The water tasted saltier than I remembered as a kid growing up in Southern California.

Three 1,000.

Faces of those no longer living came to me: my childhood dog, Charlie(ph); my grandparents; my parents; Brian, Phil. I'm going to die someday.

Four 1,000.

I snapped out of it. I started to feel pain again, the surest sign of life. The numbing cold now burned. My heart pounded against my lungs. I just wanted to scream. I righted myself and broke through the surface gasping for air as I raised my body out of the water. It had only been seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. I struggled to walk to shore, paddling with my arms against the undertow. Jen made me pose for a photo. I shivered as she fiddled with her camera, waiting for the flash to warm up. Expanded and heavy, everything I was wearing hung off me as if I were a child in adult clothes. In the photo, I'm smiling for real because that's how I feel, alive.

BLOCK: Jake Warga lives in Seattle. His work comes through way of HearingVoices.com.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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Correction Dec. 1, 2005

The band the Stars are Canadian — not British, as we said.

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