Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Call on Valentine's Day...........

It was a sunny day, and I was tremendously busy at work. The fact that I came back from an extended weekend worsened my workload - but it was Valentines day - the first one since T and I met. We had gone to San Diego the previous weekend for the Rugby 7 series , and I made plans for us to stay at the beautiful Konakai Resorts ( one of the hotels I helped my previous company acquire ) - and I kind of thought that it will make like a valentines getaway for us. Well, it didnt . All my kenyan friends were in San Diego, and the fact that I have stopped drinking totally , and T is not that much into parties - made for an uncomfortable mix. My friends kept calling , and I kept away from the parties except for the first night. And they equated my presence on that night to having Jesus sitting with them at the table while they are drinking.

But, it was our first V-day, kind of. And I wanted her to feel special. So, in between work, reports and meetings , I was deeply wondering what I should do. And when the idea hit me, I sneaked out in my busy schedule - bought two dozen roses (peach and pink) , two gigantic lobsters, some seafood for a home cooked dinner and with the nice bottle of chianti I had at home - I was all set for the evening.Feeling pretty pleased I went back to work.

And thats when the call came.

At first, I was inclined to tell my front desk to pass it on to my voicemail - but when he mentioned it is the second time she is trying to reach you - I decided to take it. It was a call from the San Francisco Coroners office asking me by name ! With a chill running down my spine , I answered yes thats me . She politely identified herself as calling from the investigations office and asked me , Do you know anyone by the name of Kin Wah Chan ? I remember we had a chef named Ken and a maintainence person named Kenny - but no one by that name . I asked her what was it about ,if he is in trouble , and she informed me that Kin Wah Chan had jumped off the Golden Gate bridge at 9:30am that morning and they cannot locate any next of kin . When they pulled him up two hours later , they found my business card in his jacket pocket. They were wondering if I have any information on him. Momentarily stunned, I explained to her that I can look in my guest data base for the hotel and call her back.I shelved all my reports for the day, and started my search. And it did not turn up anything . I called her back and told her that I couldn't find anyone matching that name having stayed at our hotel and asked her what is going to happen if no one can identify his body. She paused, and told me that they will keep trying.

Although I had to go back to my appointments for the day, I could not keep my mind off this at all. When I was discussing an Event with one of my appointments , it suddenly occurred to me that banquet/event information is stored on a different system. I dashed back to my office , and started my search again. And there it was . Kin Wah Chan - had come to the hotel last October to discuss a chinese engagement tea party ceremony with his fiancee - no date selected for the event , no forwarding address , follow-up call on the number given shows number no longer in service. I had come up with nothing at all. When I was in Med School - I formed a pretty good idea as to what happens to unidentified unclaimed bodies. And the thought kept bothering me , and yet I came up with nothing. But, I called the lady again and gave her whatever I gathered and told her I will keep searching and let her know.

My mind was not into work anymore. Why would anyone decide to go out this way ? on valentines day ? I have crossed that bridge so many times and even took pictures of me overlooking that bridge and the sunset so many times and yet never wondered that such a beautiful thing could be the point of a different kind of crossing for others in total despair. I take all my friends and relatives who come to visit San Francisco for a tour of the Golden Gate bridge - and on a sparkling day the beauty of the bridge complimenting the picturesque city in the background is a sight to behold ! I started looking for some answers and it kept amazing and saddening me at the same time.

The total number of people who have jumped off the Golden Gate bridge is well over 1,200 since it was built in May 1937 - on average one suicide every two weeks - and is considered the leading suicide location in the world. When the number was approaching one thousand in 1995 , due to the count-down fever CHP decided to halt its public count at 997 - and that did not stop Eric Atkinson to jump off and become the thousandth person - although like many others, his body was never found but he was seen making the jump. Every year close to about 50 people are persuaded successfully not to jump - apparently Kin Wah Chan was not one of them. Most of the jumpers prefer the fall facing east - the spectacular view of the city of San Francisco and the bay being the reason - than facing west towards the vast Pacific ocean. Researhers conclude that most of the people want to see something beautiful when they decide to end it all - some of the jumpers actually crossed the sister Bay bridge and come to the Vermillion Red painted Pillars of the Golden Gate bridge for the jump. The first recorded jump was just three months after the bridge was officially opened , a World War 1 veteran Harold Wobber walked up to the bridge and turned towards a total stranger and said, This is as far as I go , and jumped. One of the famous people to jump is Roy Raymond - the founder of Victoria's Secret !

So, why do they do it ? Every one of us go through the ups and downs of life , and some of us are more vulnerable not to overcome our depression than others . Most of the reasons remain uncovered, swept away in the waters under the bridge like the bodies of the people who attempt the suicide . Some are trivial, some are deeply touching. Sometimes the relatives, even the parents cannot explain why an otherwise healthy productive individual decides to take this deadly decision. When I was shifting through the articles , one was particularly troublesome. One of the jumpers wrote on his suicide note : " I am going to walk to the bridge today. If one person smiles at me on the way , I will not jump." Apparently, no one did. Another 14 year old High School student skipped school and took a $ 150 cab ride to the bridge and wrote on her suicide note :" I love you all , this is not your fault ."She was a straight A student. Kevin Hines, one of the very few that survived the jump recounts how he was on the bridge , utterly distraught with tears down his eyes , waiting for someone to stop him when a tourist approached him - only to ask him to take a picture of her on the bridge completely oblivious of the tears in his face - Hines obliged , accepted the thank you in return and jumped off the bridge. Tracy Lea Heineman - a computer programmer,music director and piano teacher who could converse in six different languages - stopped her VW Cabrio midway on the No.3 lane on the Golden Gate bridge on a January evening , got out with fresh groceries still in the back seat of her car , ran and jumped over the rail. These are all ordinary everyday people , with deep emotional distress they could not cope with. What was Kin Wah Chan's reason ?

In 2005 ,Eric Steel released a documentary named " The Bridge" - a documentary made up of footages from numerous cameras panned on the bridge span 24 hours a day - from January till December of 2004. It captured 23 out of the 24 jumps that year , and created a firestorm. His team actually stopped 6 of the suicides by alerting authorities , and the film also contains interviews with family of the jumpers to find the causes .

How can we prevent this from happening ? How many times have we all experienced pain and a sense of desolation and somehow bounced back and worked our way through it ? Thought, life cannot go on and found out although it limps for a while , it does go on. Doesn't these people need a deterrent to dissaude them from the jump ? And here lies the controversy. The safety railing of this bridge is only 4 ft. tall ( some say because Joseph Strauss , the designer of the bridge was only little over 5 ft and he wanted to look over the railing !) - so anyone with a sudden urge to "just disappear" - has nothing to stop him or her. A lot of the families of the jumpers have taken up the cause to build a safety railing deterrent . But opponents say it will destroy the aesthetic nature of the bridge , there are also wind and stress concerns and of course monetary funding. Despite spending 20 million for a moveable median to prevent head-on collisions on the bridge, and another 5 million to keep bicyclists safe ( even though not a single bicyclist has ever died on the bridge !) - the Bridge Authority could not find 6 ~8 million needed for the safety barrier to this date.

The startling fact remains that the few survivors have said the same thing - they regretted what they did the moment they released their hands from the railing. Ken Baldwin , who jumped in August 1985, tells how he counted to ten and released his hands and while clearing the chords of the bridge realised : "... that everything in my life that I'd thought was unfixable was completely fixable - except for having just jumped". Dr. Richard Sieden followed 515 people who were persuaded to come back from the railing and found 96 per cent went on with their lives and did not attempt again - if this is not the one compelling reason to erect the barrier , then none is. Maybe , some suspect , there is a certain disdain for these desperate souls even in liberal San Francisco. Filmmaker Eric Steel says :""The strange thing about the bridge itself is that when someone dies there, there's this big splash," he said. "And within minutes, it's like nothing ever happened. All the ripples go away. And the traffic keeps moving, and the pedestrians are walking, and the water's going under the bridge. But for the families, that ripple keeps going forever."

It was already dark , approaching 8pm and I had to wind up my day at work. And it was Valentines Day. I hurried back home with the flowers,chocolate and the bags of seafood I was cooking for dinner. And T was there , smiling , we cooked the dinner together - pointing out each others flawed method of cooking seafood - and ate heartily together. And I was thankful to have so many people I can relate my life to in some way or another.

Next day, I went to work again , called the Coroners Office and asked the lady if they had any luck and told her that I wish to be notified if there are any funeral services so T and I can attend. What prompted Kin Wah Chan to take his life we would never know , whether a barrier or just a smile would have made him rethink his decision we wouldn't know either. The fact will forever remain that on a sunny crispy Valentines morning , Kin Wah Chan slowly climbed over the 4 ft. guard-rail , stood on the ledge of an iconic modern marvel overlooking the breathtaking grandeur of the city , then looked down at the icy waters of the pacific and decided there is nothing to hold him back to this earth - and jumped - with my business card in his jacket.


kennie otits said...

wow raj!!thats a very intriguing story and i am glad it didnt get to ruin ur valentines. I watched some parts of the documentary however and the same questions ur asking went thru my mind. ThankGod that atleast their depressions didnt lead them to spraying bullets to passersby like the V-tech incident.
kennie otitoju

rajon said...

Thank you Kennie - it was great to hear from you !

You are right - it is such a waste - I lament all the lives lost that could not cope with their depressions - and wonder how many would have been acclaimed poets,artists or simply good decent thoughtful human beings....