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Spokane’s Suicide Bridge

Places where people die, or are buried, are usually avoided by the living. This is true even when these places are public, like road crossings, or bridges where people have died by accidents or suicide. Most normal people will say a silent prayer when they come to a cross or marker of a past tragedy. It takes a certain mentality to turn places like this into party places, like the Monroe Bridge, Spokane’s frontrunner for a city Suicide Bridge. The Monroe Bridge is just downstream from Spokane falls, and the constant roar of the river can be almost hypnotic.

According to one person, the Monroe Bridge became named the suicide bridge when a priest hung himself or jumped from it many years ago. Recent newspaper articles did not mention any priests committing suicide on the bridge, but they record several recent attempts, some successful. Since the first Monroe Bridge was built in 1889, there has been plenty of time to accumulate many, many suicides, if recent records are any indication.

In 1994, a man jumped from the bridge but survived. In 1998, another man tried committing suicide by deliberately crashing his car into two different lampposts. This broke the car, and the man fled onto the bridge when the police arrived. The man succeeded when he jumped from the bridge. In 1998 and 2003 the bodies of two men were found under or near the bridge. Police were not sure if they committed suicide or fell to their deaths.

Spokane has been something of a Mecca for the homeless since the 1970s. The city ordinances against panhandling, and what used to be called “Hobo Camps,” were vague, so every year the homeless arrive and set up their camps. The police quickly followed them, as they and Spokane city officials tried to break up the camps. The Monroe Bridge was a particular favorite of the homeless, which led to overcrowding, and the possibility that at least two men fell to their deaths, or they jumped, or they were pushed. These little homeless communities had their own rules.

On June 25, 1998, a man known as “Stretch,” was stabbed and beaten by a gang of homeless thugs. According to social workers, many of the younger homeless men had formed groups, like the Freight Train Riders of America. Other rumors say that a group of homeless skinheads were terrorizing non-white homeless people near the bridge. There were several robberies and assaults near the Monroe Bridge. This appalled many ordinary people, but not all.

Gonzaga University is located in Spokane, which is the largest city in Eastern Washington. Between Gonzaga and the normal population of Spokane and its suburbs, there are a significant number of young people in town on weekends with nothing exciting to do. Some of them were attracted to the perceived glamour and real danger of hanging out under the Monroe Bridge. For some, it was their way of proclaiming their immortality by hanging out in a place with a history of death and unhappiness. Their numbers grew, and on weekends, crowds of college students began gathering and throwing parties under the many other bridges that cross the Spokane River.

The Monroe Bridge was closed between 2003 and 2005, which was a perfect opportunity for some entrepreneurs. First individuals and garage bands brought out their own musical instruments and small generators. Over time, professional organizers set up large events or raves under the bridges. To keep them exclusive, and secret from the police, the party moved every night or weekend. However, the Monroe was one of the favorite party places. Eventually the homeless abandoned their camps. Thrill seekers looked for bigger and bigger shows, or new highs. What began with recreational drinking and light drugs was followed by binge drinking and harder drugs, like ecstasy.

Eventually the thrill seekers got tired of trying to milk a new experience out of the Suicide Bridge venue. They gradually drifted away, looking for a new thrill somewhere else. They abandoned the bridges to the homeless people again, who crept back into their former domain.

The legend of a priest or someone else hanging from the bridge may have come from the true story surrounding nearby Hangman Creek. In 1858, Colonel George Wright pursued the Yakamas and Paloose Indians across eastern Washington. He set up camp south of modern day Spokane. Chief Qualcchan and a number of other warriors entered Wright’s camp to parlay. Thinking Qualchan was guilty of previous attacks on settlers, Wright hung him and others with him, without a trial. A short time later, Wright learned that Qualchan was not guilty, but it was too late. The creek where Wright camped and hung Qualchan was named Hangman Creek. This creek flows into the Spokane River from the south and joins it at High Bridge Park, just west of the Monroe Bridge.

I used to be on the crew who helped set up raves underneath the Suicide Bridge. It was a little freaky sometimes, standing there under the lights, with the sound of the river rushing by, just outside of the party zone. They said that a bunch of people committed suicide by jumping off the bridge above us. I wonder sometimes how none of the kids at the rave got high and tried flying off the bridge themselves. –Adam

Seattle’s Suicide Bridge
Death is a fact of life. Most people want to hold off death as long as they can. Unfortunately some people cannot handle the terrible facts of their lives, and try to commit suicide. In a city like Seattle, hundreds, if not thousands of people try every year, and a percentage of them succeed. Most people do this in out of the way places, or at home. However, some of them chose Seattle’s Aurora Bridge, also known as the Suicide Bridge.

The Aurora Bridge is really named the George Washington Memorial Bridge, and was dedicated on February 22, 1932, his 200th birthday. Most people call it the Aurora Bridge, because traffic along Aurora Avenue crosses Lake Union from Freemont to Queen Anne. Every day, 45,000 cars and trucks travel across the 167 foot high, 2,945 foot long bridge. Several hundred people also ride their bicycles, or walk across the pedestrian paths on the bridge. Because it is a part of Seattle’s skyline, as well as accessible, the bridge has become a favorite of Seattle’s suicidal.

Since it opened, at least 230 people have successfully committed suicide by jumping off the bridge.

Of course, that count comes from the number of bodies recovered from Lake Union, or the pavement below the bridge. There is no telling how many other people committed suicide, and the authorities never found their bodies.

For many years, the Aurora Bridge area was an industrial district, with warehouses, docks, and open land. That changed beginning in the late 1980s. More business offices opened up, as well as restaurants, and many stores. The number of suicides may have increased as well. From 1997 to 2007, 39 people jumped off the Aurora Bridge. In 2006 alone, eight people committed suicide on the bridge. Most of them landed in the water, but a few on the ground below. So far, no suicide has hit a person walking below.

At least one commuter refused to drive on the right hand side of the road below the bridge. Instead, she drove on the left hand side of the road, far under the bridge; where a falling body would not hit her car. Many suicides took place during the day, which took a toll on people living and working there. Employees at the sporting goods store company Cutter & Buck have witnessed several of these suicides. Grief counselors have spoken to many of the employees, and make regular follow up visits.

The Washington State Department of Transportation operates the bridge. Along with the city of Seattle, they decided that they could not close the bridge off to pedestrians. Starting in December 2006, they installed 6 emergency phones, and 18 large signs along the bridge. The signs say simply: “Suicidal?” and give the phone number for a 24-hour suicide hotline. It will take a while to see if the signs and phones work.

One of the weirdest suicides on the Aurora Bridge took place on an attenuated bus. On November 27, 1998, Silas Cool boarded the 359 Express bus, heading southbound. Some of his friends noticed that a few weeks before, Cool, who suffered from emotional difficulties, had become withdrawn. A few seconds after the bus started crossing the Aurora Bridge, Cool took out a .38 automatic pistol and shot the driver, Mark McLauglin, twice. Without comment, Cool then shot himself. McLaughlin lost control of the bus, which crossed two lanes of oncoming traffic, and then fell off the bridge.

The bus fell 50 feet, and landed on the roof of an apartment building. It did not come to rest there, but fell off the roof, onto the ground below. In addition to Cool and McLaughlin, one passenger, Hermain Liebelt, died in the fall, and another 32 passengers were injured. Believe it or not, they were lucky. If Cool had waited a few more seconds before shooting McLaughlin, or if the bus had kept going for another hundred yards or so, the bus would have fallen over 160 feet into the water below.

It is hard to believe, but at least 30 people survived suicide attempts jumping off the Aurora Bridge. John Dittmann was one of the lucky ones. On May 28, 1979 Dittman climbed out on the east rail, and stared into the darkness for a second before jumping. It took only a fraction of a second for Dittmann to decide he wanted to live. It was too late. He fell downward at a rate of 33 feet per second. He quickly reached a “terminal velocity” of 70 miles per hour.

Dittmann threw his arms backward, and managed to straighten his body out, so he did not hit the water in a belly flop. He managed to extend his feet, and point his toes to enter the water cleanly. It saved his life. Dittmann sank several feet into the water, and rose back to the surface. He managed to swim to the shore with only a fractured back and bruised lungs.

Most of the other survivors had similar survival stories. Considering the velocity at which they hit the water or ground, their injuries were remarkably light. Most broke legs or their pelvises, and more than one lost an inch or two in height due to spinal compression.

Some people swear they see the ghosts of some of the dead jumpers and in one case, a ghostly man holding his dog as the two of them jump off Seattle’s Suicide Bridge.

In contrast to this dark history, tourists can visit the giant concrete troll statue built under the north bridge abutment. At first condemned by the artistic community, many city residents love “The Freemont Troll,” which holds a VW bug in its hand.

Weird Washington


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