Coronado residents and officials are demanding improvements to make California’s second deadliest suicide bridge a safer place.
Stretching just over two miles with an elevated span of 1,880 feet, the Coronado Bridge is one of San Diego’s most notable landmarks. It has seen more than 400 suicides since opening in August 1969, making it the second deadliest bridge behind only the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
“It’s the dirty little secret they want to keep secret because it's certainly not a pleasant subject,” retired Coronado firefighter Wayne Strickland said. “People want to think, ‘Oh, how beautiful that bridge is.’”
These incidents often lead to complete shutdowns of the bridge, ensnaring east and westbound drivers in severe traffic jams. Home to Coronado’s Naval Amphibious Base, the Naval Air Station North Island and historic attractions like the Hotel Del Coronado, thousands of people travel the bridge daily.
Strickland joined the Coronado Fire Department in 1967, two years before the Coronado Bridge opened. He has been actively working to make the city safer — and year after year, the bridge continues to pose a threat to the community.
Strickland says the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) isn’t moving quickly enough to install a permanent deterrent. In early 2019, Caltrans installed a temporary fix with four-inch metal spikes along the bridge’s three-foot rails.
“They should never have put those bird spikes up there,” Strickland said. “It keeps the traffic moving because people can't sit on the bird spikes — they can't sit on the ledge. It makes people actually jump quicker, with less of a chance to save them.”
Suicide reports have steadily increased since the beginning of 2020. San Diego Police reported 1,347 suicide-attempt calls between January 1 and October 6 of this year. In comparison, the department received 1,250 calls during the same period in 2019 and 1,268 calls in 2018.
A Community in Crisis
Rhonda Haiston, a Coronado resident, founded the Coronado San Diego Bridge Collaborative for Suicide Prevention in November 2014 after hearing from numerous friends who witnessed suicide attempts and felt as though nothing was being done.
The Collaborative’s mission, Haiston said, is not only to install a permanent deterrent on the bridge, but to educate the public on the importance of eliminating access to this means for suicide.
Construction of the Coronado Bay Bridge was approved by the Pentagon and the California State Division of Highways in 1964. The bridge took two years to complete after breaking ground in 1967 and officially opening to the public on August 3, 1969. Photo courtesy of the Coronado Times.
“In my experience, nobody knew how many deaths were occurring annually at the bridge,” Haiston said. “It took this initiative to inform and educate the public as to what was going on here and what needed to be done.”
The Collaborative’s Bridge Monitoring Project organizes local volunteers, who can sign up for an hour a week to drive on or under the bridge, to look for unusual activity. The organization uses its website and social media presence to promote awareness. Haiston says that so far, they’ve seen encouraging results.
According to the San Diego County Coroner’s Office, the number of suicides has steadily increased over the last two decades. In 2012, suicides increased by 90%, climbing from 10 reported deaths in 2011 to 19 in 2012. Casey Tanaka, the mayor of Coronado at the time, says the city is just as powerless now as it was in 2012.
“The best we can do is to take a vote on something and encourage a policy,” Tanaka said. “But it doesn't mean Caltrans needs to implement it.”
Tanaka served as the city's mayor between 2008 and 2016. He said the bridge remained his top priority for all eight years.
Coronado Police Chief Chuck Kaye said the department responds to numerous calls on the bridge each year. The recovery team for suicides is a collective effort of different citywide departments.
“Oftentimes, the officers are able to get up there and get the person under control right away,” Kaye said. “If the person is not reachable, then there’s a strong likelihood they're going to call the emergency negotiations team to try to talk them off the side of the bridge.”
Kaye said earlier this year, a woman attempted suicide but landed on the temporary scaffolding used for painting and repair work. It was the joint effort of the Coronado Fire Department, San Diego Fire Department, San Diego Police Department and Coronado Police Department that brought her down off the scaffolding, Kaye said.
While suicide rates from the bridge continue to increase, many residents are urgently insisting on preventative measures.
“We had a lot of people in Coronado, they formed wonderful support groups,” Tanaka said. “There was one group that whenever they heard there was police activity, they would rush to Tidelands Park with large signs made out of bedsheets, trying to let those people know. I mean, there wasn't a lack of action on the part of Coronado residents.”
The Struggle for a Solution
Environmental and design factors play a significant role in the installation of any sort of barrier around the 51-year-old bridge. The official project by Caltrans District 11 is called the San Diego — Coronado Bay Bridge Suicide Deterrent Project. Multiple considerations need to be thoroughly evaluated, which include vertical clearance for ships, maintenance repair, emergency response for first responders and public engagement in the decision-making process.
Nicknamed "Crown Town," thousands of drivers travel daily to and from Coronado Island. With the Naval Air Station and Amphibious Base, long stretches of state beaches and popular attractions like the historic Hotel Del Coronado, Coronado is a small town with a diverse island community. Photo courtesy of the Port of San Diego.
“You can't just slap a Band-Aid up there,” Haiston said. “This is a public thoroughfare, as well as military access to a military base — a very important one. We had to determine if the bridge could handle the payload, the extra weight on it.”
Haiston was appointed to work with Caltrans in moving forward with a barrier. In addition to a physical deterrent, Caltrans also plans on making minor improvements to bridge safety, including upgrading transportation management systems and close-circuit television cameras to monitor bridge conditions and identify roadway incidents.
In June, Caltrans District 11 hosted a virtual meeting organizing a 30-day public scoping period to receive community input on the four alternative barrier designs. The scoping period ended on July 14.
For a transportation project of this size, the deterrent plan is required to undergo a project initiation process. An environmental review can take up to three years. Once a design is selected and funding is secured, the project moves into construction.
Caridad Sanchez, the chief of public information and legislative affairs of Caltrans District 11, said the project is currently in the environmental review phase.
The San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge Suicide Deterrent Project is three years into development in installing a permanent barrier and making minor improvements to roadway monitoring systems. Caltrans completed a public scoping period for community feedback on July 14. Courtesy of the California Department of Transportation.
“Building suicide barriers isn’t something that transportation agencies really do,” Sanchez said. “We build bridges and roads and bike paths and transit stations on freeways. But this is something that's certainly different.”
In 2018, Caltrans released a feasability study to see if any solution was possible on the bridge. Because there’s no obvious answer, everyone is learning how to move forward with the project, Sanchez said. It takes time to thoroughly investigate every factor and possibility.
Kaye said several representatives from the Coronado Police Department attend the meetings Caltrans hosts regarding the barrier installation.
“People are very sincere in identifying a meaningful, long-lasting, determined solution to the current problem,” Kaye said.
The project is in its third year of development, but officials say the barrier could take up to ten years to complete. So far, no physical construction has taken place.
Heavily involved in roadway safety, Strickland is determined to see an end to suicides on the bridge. Strickland responded to numerous suicide-related calls as a firefighter, and he wants to ensure that suicides don’t keep recurring.
“There's just nothing that anyone can do to prepare themselves for that moment when someone just very rapidly stops their car and jumps,” Tanaka said. “A typical day in Coronado, there are 80 to 100,000 people who use the bridge. So whoever is up there in that moment is going to be very traumatized by that.”
Tanaka says the community wants to see changes, but they have little say in making a change.
“It's California's bridge — they're the property owner,” Tanaka said. “I would say Coronado people generally feel very powerless on this issue.”
While the community feels underwhelmed by the progress being made, the impact is not amiss by those in charge of the project.
“I know every time there's a suicide or a suicide attempt, we really feel it on the on the team,” Sanchez said. “We're trying to get it through a process that sometimes is hard to understand. We have a heart and feelings, too, and we're definitely pouring those into this project.”