Sgt. Kevin Briggs stops Golden Gate Bridge suicides daily. He knows a thing or two about what makes us jump.
[This story originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Men’s Health magazine.]
It’s a blue morning in March, 2013, when Sandro Salvetti, a CHP bike officer on the Golden Gate Bridge, keys in on a guy leaning against the traffic-side rail. He looks in his 50s, with graying facial hair, a green jacket, and a fishing hat. Something about the guy doesn’t fit. You learn what to look for in this job — someone standing alone, no camera, no water bottle, looking not out, but down. Salvetti immediately moves on the guy, aiming to get his front wheel between him and the bridge rail, but the guy sees him coming and gets there first.
“Wait wait wait talk to me!” Salvetti cries. The guy gives him a look, throws a leg over, and pushes off without saying a word. Four seconds later there’s a FOOM like a shotgun report as he slams the water at 75mph. Now on the trembling bridge Salvetti stands alone, watching the fishing hat drift gently down to the corpse of its owner. When he checks in with his sergeant an hour or so later the pain in his voice speaks for itself.
“I failed,” he says.
The risk is always there. No one knows this better than Salvetti’s sergeant, Kevin Briggs. In the two decades he’s worked the bridge he’s saved hundreds from jumping, and made a specialty of reaching people at their most unreachable. Newspapers call him a hero. His own colleagues refer to him (only half-jokingly) as The Guardian. Now Salvetti listens to hear what he’ll say. Because no one knows more about finding hope when times are dark than Sergeant Kevin Briggs.
In the briefing room at the CHP’s Corte Madera station Briggs plays the straight man to morning shift’s good-natured buffoonery. The manager of the Golden Gate Bridge, he says, is requesting a bigger presence today, as they complete their conversion to 100% electronic tolling.
“How about Mike?” someone says, indicating a mammoth motor cop in the back row. “He’s a big presence.”
“How big a presence do they want?” someone else inquires.
Mike Nispuruk leans forward and tucks a tangerine slice down the collar of the officer sitting in front of him.
“Go back to elementary school,” someone says.
It carries on like this until all the beats have been assigned, and everyone knows what they’re doing for the day.
A motor cop for the last 14 years, Briggs has the kind of weathered face you’d see on a sailor — except for the pale imprint from his Maui-Jim Stingrays. At 50, he has fully grown into his cop persona, and gets recognized by counter girls even when he’s not wearing a badge. The short hair, wide stance, and air of roadside courtesy are impossible to mistake.
But Briggs is not an easy man to figure. His copness surrounds him like a block of wood. He’s got that stoic impenetrability you sometimes see in professions where trauma is what happens between coffee breaks. Or perhaps it’s only his Norwegian blood. Impossible to tell — even for him, probably. Once you put enough years between yourself and the mess that shaped you, the nature of that mess begins to fade. At a certain point, you just do what you do, and the why of it doesn’t matter anymore, so long as you do it well.
And Briggs does do it well. This in itself is a bit of a head-scratcher. How do you change the mind of someone so convinced of something that they’re ready to give their life for it? How do you do this with virtually no leverage, no real knowledge of who you’re talking to, and in weather conditions that are, shall we say, adverse?
The stories have the flavor of war stories, combining the quotidian and eternal with a strong whiff of madness. There was the girl, for instance, he found injecting Snapple into her arm, who kept him at bay wielding hypodermics like daggers. “She was way, way out there,” Briggs says.
There have been people who wanted to end it all because their dogs died, people who showed up with bricks in their pockets, or a backpack full of weights. One guy, whose religion forbade suicide, guzzled a fifth of scotch and then just hung around waiting to slip.
We all have our dark times, of course. In fact, research shows that nearly one in seven people will seriously consider putting out their own light at least once in their lives. This is the reality Briggs rides out to confront every day. After a while, the incidents all blur together, which is part of what makes Briggs so hard to read.
But one incident will always stand out, even in the bridge’s storied history. Most suicide interventions are resolved one way or the other in 15 minutes. This one went on for eight hours. Even today, no one who works the bridge has seen anything like it. In fact, ask anyone who was there and they’ll tell you, it was a career high point, a day not to be forgotten. An epic struggle between light, on the one side of the rail, and darkness on the other. The very goddam thing every good cop signs up for in the first place.
Briggs was the point man on that incident. And this is the great thing about police work: it speaks for itself. We have the records, we have the memories of those who were there. If you talk to enough people, you can eventually put it together. And maybe get a glimpse of what makes a guy like Briggs tick.
The incident begins like most of them do, with a radio crackle and an obscure string of numbers: 34–20 Golden Gate 10–31. It’s around noon on a Saturday in December, 2003, five days before Christmas. Raw and cold in the way it often gets on the Pacific. The Bridge Patrol briefs Briggs when he pulls up. They spotted the guy from their cruiser and used the PA to warn him off the bike-only walkway, but when they moved to intercept the subject fled south to the northwest tower and went over the side. They’ve been trying to get him talking ever since.
The northwest tower is the worst possible place to deal with a jumper. There are rocks below, first of all, erasing even the slim survival rate you get when jumping over open water. And unlike on the span itself, where a 32-inch track for the mobile scaffolding runs outside the rail, here it’s a sheer drop. If you’re not hanging on every moment, you’re gone. Then there’s the wind, clocking around the headlands and lowering the temperature another ten degrees. The only upside is the tower itself, which blocks some of the road noise, making it a tiny bit easier to carry on the kind of life-saving conversation that is Briggs’s specialty.
As soon as he spots him, one arm locked over the rail, clutching his own wrist, the hairs on the back of Briggs’s neck stand up. It’s always an uncanny moment, because you’re dealing with someone who just doesn’t care. The moment they step over that rail, they puncture a hole in reality through which any crooked thing may tumble. As much as you want to save the guy, for instance, you always have to remember that he could change his mind, and opt for suicide-by-cop.
This guy looks seriously spooked. In his mid-30s, with dark, scruffy hair, and a gray flannel shirt, he stares wildly whenever a truck thunders over an expansion joint. Briggs eases closer, like walking up on a bomb.
Now comes the hard part. Because what do you say? What words wouldn’t sound trivial, and blow back in the wind like so much spit? Saying anything at all goes against a deep instinct. Despite ourselves, we turn away from those at death’s door. Maybe out of courtesy. Maybe because we feel nothing in common. Maybe because we have everything in common, but don’t want to admit it.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Briggs would even use the word suicide, for fear that acknowledging the jumper’s intent might seem like an endorsement. Today, Briggs will walk right up and say, “Are you out here to hurt yourself?” Because why not? The end of the earth is the last place for bullshit. If you can’t be real you need to let someone else do the talking.
The fact is, what holds us to this earth from one minute to the next is not the big stuff — our hopes and dreams for the future — but the little things. The dog that’s pawing at the door. The phone call you have to return. And the faint obligation you can’t help but feel for a cop who keeps asking considerate questions.
“It’s like Vegas,” Briggs says, in a rare burst of verbosity. “The longer I can keep you at the table, the better chance I have of winning.”
The hardest part is keeping up a conversation knowing that at any second the guy you’re talking to could step off. It’s a bummer when someone ignores you. Worse when they turn their back mid-sentence. Now imagine how bad you’d feel when the last, half-assed thing you say becomes the last thing another human being will ever hear.
It’s only happened to Briggs once.
“I just remember this guy going silent a lot,” says Officer Pat Smalley, who was also there that day. “And typically when they go silent it’s because they’re getting closer and closer to actually doing it.”
In his years on the bridge, Briggs has learned to read the signs — the lowered head, the heavy breathing. Once he saved a man’s life simply by clapping at the right moment, and snapping him out of it.
But the guy Briggs lost couldn’t be reached. He was a nice guy, too, polite to the last. When he finally went he shook Briggs’s hand.
Briggs tells his officers to look away, but he didn’t. You have to tell the Coast Guard where to go. Then it’s down to the Coast Guard station, to meet the coroner and wait for the body — assuming the Coast Guard can find it. If they do, it won’t be pretty.
“There’s no easiness about getting into the water from that height,” says Ken Holmes, who worked in the Marin Coroner’s office for 36 years. “The devastation — it’s the same as being thrust in front of a fast-moving semi.”
At 220 feet, the Bridge is just high enough that it’s easy to ignore the grisly reality of impact. Land front or back and all the ribs on that side snap, and converge on your internal organs like a set of ragged jaws. It’s not unlike getting mauled by a shark — without ever breaking the skin. Nor is there any guarantee that you will be unconscious for this experience. In fact, however painless or dreamy a jump from the world’s top suicide spot may seem, 60% of jumpers hit ass first, and the impact basically rapes you, tearing off your shoes, pants, and shirt. And that’s how they find you, bare-assed and bobbing, a semi-clothed load of medical waste for some poor Coastie to snag and bag. And for Briggs to carry on his conscience forever.
Four o’clock in the afternoon and Briggs has been trying to engage the jumper for hours, but when he says anything at all, it’s that he’s a bad person, and doesn’t deserve to live.
For Briggs, there’s only one thing you should never say, which is that you know what they’re going through, because really, you don’t. But you can share stories from your own life to help build a bond. This much is true of any negotiation: if you can build that bond, and make them care what you think, you have the upper hand.
For a cop, though, nothing goes more against the grain than exposing your personal life. Which may be part of why they don’t teach this at the academy. Consider, by contrast, what they teach about how to write a ticket. Every move is choreographed, from the walk around the back of your vehicle (never between the bumpers) to the light touch on the offender’s trunk to confirm it’s shut (and to leave your fingerprints in case something bad happens). Even the way you shift position between the A and B pillars, to observe the driver’s hands as they pull out their wallet and reach for the registration.
On the bridge there is no procedure. Every cop brings something different. Now Briggs tries a story about his own darkest hours. This was in his army days, 30 years ago in Germany. He was training as a TOW missile operator when he began feeling more tired than usual, and checked in with the base doctor. There he was told he had stage four lymphoma.
Days later, he was back in San Francisco, at the Letterman Army Hospital, where they cut out some lymph nodes and cranked up the chemo — five rounds of it. By the fourth his weight had dropped from 175 to 135, and his hands shook so much he couldn’t hang on to a paper plate. To this day he can clearly remember lying in the ward with five other guys, all but one much older than him. Then someone would puke, and the rest would respond like a chorus, until they were all haggard and empty. A few hours might go by before it happened again. It reached a point where Briggs was begging them to let him skip the last round of chemo.
He could never have endured were it not for the guy in the next bed. Cancer was about to take his leg, but somehow he was always in high spirits.
“He’d be talking and eating a sloppy, greasy sandwich,” Briggs marvels, “and the next minute be throwing up… and he’d take a breath and go right back to talking.”
The guy’s dauntlessness was humbling. And sometimes you have to see that in someone else to really understand it, or see how far short your own character falls by comparison.
Briggs got it. He understood. And as he lay there in the dry dark, nursing yet another cherry slushie (even coming up, the slushies still soothed his itchy throat), he realized he could go on.
Now, on the bridge, Briggs puts it all out there, fishing for a response. He shares other stories, as well, stories we will never hear. The fact is, if this guy jumps, he will do so knowing more about Briggs than we do today. This is part of the gambit, to hold the jumper responsible for that knowledge. In this way, you make yourself the last thing they have to leave. It is not the bridge they’re jumping off of, in other words.
Sergeant Jim Hickey rides back in his chair, a big cop in a small office. A fifth generation law man, Hickey joined the Sheriff’s Office fourteen years ago, after nine years in construction, and took a $20,000 pay cut to do it. When the call came in that December afternoon, he had just completed his hostage negotiation training, so his boss sent him down to help Briggs out.
“It was kinda life-changing,” Hickey says. “It’s where we became buddies, actually.”
Hickey remembers Briggs’s iron confidence never faltering, despite the jumper’s silence. In ordinary conversation, he points out, you always get some acknowledgement, even if only a nod or a grunt. But this guy was giving up nothing, and the exertion required to keep that line of talk extended, like a stick to a swimmer just out of reach, was exhausting.
For Hickey the ordeal was especially frustrating because, with his construction background, he felt like he knew where their jumper was coming from.
“He seemed like one of the guys who might have been on my crew,” he says, “just a blue collar guy who had everything come down around him. And he had no idea what the hell to do.”
It was Hickey who noticed the blackened fingernail, the mark of a true hammer swinger, and the first real piece of intel they had on the guy. But running with this was not without risks. “Everything you can think of, there’s a downside to it,” Hickey says.
Sure enough, mentioning the fingernail only serves to remind the guy that he just lost his job, which is part of why he’s out there today. And now the rain’s kicking up, mean pellets drilling horizontal on a bitter wind. With short cop hair, it feels like a brain freeze. Hickey wears his lined patrol jacket, but Briggs purposefully left his in the cruiser. Sometimes even this can be leveraged. Cold out here, huh. Why don’t we go talk somewhere warmer?
Now a judder enters Briggs’s voice as he calls out to the jumper. As bad as it is for Briggs, it’s even worse for him — hair matted, flannel shirt soaked through, clinging to the cold metal. By now he has slipped down, halfway under the sidewalk, his feet on a 3/4-inch conduit. They can see him trembling, both from the cold and the sheer physical effort of hanging on for so long. With dark coming on, and hypothermia setting in, it’s hard to know how much longer he can last.
Briggs has grabbed guys before on the other side of the bridge, but it’s definitely not the first card you want to play. Even so, the iron workers have been on standby since 3:20pm, with Sausolito Fire in support. The iron workers are the only ones who can actually go over the side, with harnesses attached to the bridge rails. The problem is, every time they try to latch on, the jumper freaks.
“No no no no no! Don’t do that! Don’t do that!” he cries, and starts skittering perilously under the sidewalk. So Briggs has to call them off.
But by now Briggs, kneeling, has worked himself to within a foot of where the guy’s right arm is hooked through the rail. If he’s fast enough, there’s a chance he can get a cuff on him, and hold him until they can lift him over. Risky, yes, but they may not get another chance.
Briggs signals to Hickey, and they move — Hickey grabbing the arm and Briggs snapping out his cuffs. But Briggs’s hand slips on the guy’s rain-slick skin, and — sonuva — Hickey ends up with a handful of flannel.
Now Hickey’s traps are popping as he holds the guy, suspended, and Briggs is on his stomach thrusting an arm through the bars, and as the flannel slowly stretches it’s 90 seconds of pure, oh shit. Then the flannel pops and Hickey drops back and Briggs looks down and from behind him he can hear gasps as the overstretched flannel twitches up over the rail.
Even cops give ground if you keep at them long enough. Little bits of info start to slip. We know Briggs is divorced, but not when or why. We know he grew up in Novato, and played guitar for the choir at the Catholic church. We know his favorite thing was to wake up early and go duck hunting with his friend Jim Partridge. These days, he’s happiest when he’s in Mt. Shasta, a quaint town four hours north of San Francisco, where his grandfather once worked as a judge at the town courthouse, back in the days when you didn’t need a law degree to know right from wrong. We suspect he identifies with the old fashioned values of that small town, and at one point he all but confirms it. “Andy Griffith is one of my favorite shows,” he says, in his square, deliberate way. “I like that show.”
Briefly, one is distracted by the image of Griffith, the lone policeman in the small town of Mayberry, trying to do Briggs’s job. Probably he’d be pretty good at it.
Maybe Mike “Big Presence” Nispuruk is right. “There’s no mystery to Briggs,” he says. “He’s like a can of Play-doh, man. You pull it out, you rip it apart, you stick it all back together just like it was when you started.”
Of all the officers, Nispuruk has known Briggs the longest, having met him in line to take the academy entrance exam, 25 years ago. Nispuruk is one of those guys who wanted to be a cop since he was a kid. You see this a lot in cops. Their commitment to justice goes all the way back to childhood.
It’s the same with Dave Jones, another motor cop and long-time friend of Briggs. Jones grew up in Marin County. His grandfather owned a grocery store on Chestnut Street. As a kid, the big deal was when you could see clear out to the Farallon Islands. Today, he works to preserve that same innocence for others.
“Cops, firefighters, they have that in them,” Jones says. “They just wanna make things right.”
For a cop, it makes perfect sense that one’s moral anchor would need to be this deeply grounded — no less than the bridge cables themselves, in 182,000 cubic yards of concrete. Without that ballast, the whole structure would give way.
But this alone doesn’t explain Briggs. The only reason he ended up with the CHP is that someone he knew was applying, and Briggs decided to tag along. In fact, Briggs never got much career guidance, growing up. His dad was a reserved, fastidious man, the kind of guy who went to church every Sunday, and then came home to edge the lawn.
Oddly, Briggs never rebelled against his old man. On the contrary, according to Jim Partridge, Briggs’s childhood friend, he grew up to be just like him. “The spitting image,” Partridge says. Maybe it’s genetic. Or maybe modeling his father’s character was the only way Briggs knew to get close to a man who had always been distant. Whatever the case, it’s that very character — deliberate, square, unfaltering — that now makes him so good at saving lives.
It took them a moment to figure out that their guy hadn’t fallen, but only slipped farther under the bridge. By this point shadows had begun to gather, and photovoltaics had triggered the bridge lights and the lights on the pier. Shining up from below, with the jumper hanging there like a gargoyle, the effect was eerie. After so many hours, the entire scene was beginning to seem unreal, as if they’d all somehow warped though that hole in reality, and emerged into a darker version of the world they knew.
There’s no rules out here, at the edge of reason. Better you try something than do nothing at all. So when Hickey has the rope idea Briggs agrees to try it. They tie off a loop and toss it down and tell their guy to put it around him. “Just for security,” they say. “So we feel better.”
Amazingly, he obliges. Then he takes the rope off. Then he puts it around his neck and it’s oh Jesus. Briggs stands at the rail, stricken by the vision of a dead man swinging by his neck from the most beautiful bridge in the world. Mercifully, the rain has kept the news choppers grounded, or the bridge might be forever tainted by that dire imagery.
It’s around this time that the bridge parking lots start to empty, and Briggs dispatches a few units to scope them out. One by one the cars depart, and soon Bridge Patrol is honing in on a black Ford F-350 pickup. The doors are unlocked. The keys are inside. Along with a California driver’s license. Seconds later the pic mike on Briggs’s lapel crackles with a name.
Is it the right guy? Briggs calls out.
At last, a look of recognition, a hook. By now Hickey and the others are taking turns sheltering in the maintenance room at the base of the tower. But Briggs, implacable, is still at the rail, shouting down into the darkness. This is a big day for you Thomas. A biiig day. It takes a lot of courage to come back over that rail and face life. The easy way is jumping. But then our heartache starts. And your family’s heartache. Let’s talk about your family, Thomas.
He’s asked about family before but Thomas never answered. But knowing his name has changed the dynamic, calling Thomas back to himself, and establishing the faintest thread of connection. Now Briggs hauls back on that thread, literally reaching over the rail to grasp an extra yard of it. I bet you have kids, don’t you Thomas. Tell me about your kids, Thomas. You can jump on me. I’ll get over it. But what about your kids, man? Is this what you want them thinking about every time Christmas rolls around?
He can feel Thomas beginning to yield. But now the danger only increases, because when that surrender finally does come, the body tends to unclench. And right now that clenched, frozen body is all that stands between Thomas and destruction.
Finally Thomas gives a barely perceptible nod, and Briggs turns his rain-wet face to the small crew shivering behind him.
“He’s coming up,” Briggs says.
Instantly the iron workers are over the side. By 7:15pm Thomas is on the sidewalk — trembling, exhausted, his arms pale and ribboned with bruises — but alive. It’s an emotional moment as hours of tension finally give way to relief — what Hickey, an ex-football player, will later call “a Superbowl moment.” Hickey’s so elated he envelopes Thomas in a huge hug. Hugs aren’t Briggs’s style, but he rides with Thomas back to the toll plaza where the paramedics are waiting.
There the rest of the story emerges — the construction job that Thomas lost, the fight he had with his girlfriend — a whole package of misfortune that came together on a single day. But now that day is ending. And in the years to come, Thomas will never return to the bridge, as some do, to try jumping again.
It’s a little strange hanging out with Briggs, off the bridge’s mythic stage. Out of uniform, he comes across like an ordinary guy. A bit stiff perhaps. But just another driver, now, as we roll south on 580 to visit the family of Kevin Berthia, a guy he saved a few years ago. In May, Briggs is being flown to New York to receive an award from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and he wants Berthia to accept the award for him.
It’s typical Briggs, decent to the last, and at this point I’m almost ready stop questioning it. Briggs is a cop, after all, and cops see more trauma in three years than most people see in 70. It’s not a profession that rewards introspection. As Nispuruk likes to say, “You’re either an innie or an outie. And if you’re an innie, you’re in trouble.”
But there’s one question I still haven’t asked, which is whether Briggs has personally known anyone who committed suicide.
“Well, my grandfather did,” Briggs says. “In fact,” he goes on, as if it just occurred to him, “I’m almost positive he jumped off a bridge.”
It’s one of those understated game-changers. Like the crackle of a pic mike giving up a name. I let it sit for a minute, to see if anything else will follow. Nothing does, of course, Briggs being Briggs. He could ride along in silence forever. Finally I have to ask: You think that might be part of why your dad was always so distant?
“I know it impacted him,” Briggs says, as the cop in him finally steps aside to let the real Briggs answer. “Because, to not talk about it at all… He’ll talk about his mom. But he would never say a word about his dad.”
As the implications sink in, the true shape of the story begins to emerge. A grandfather who killed himself. A father who withdrew. A son who grew up in the shadow of that father, and now finds his purpose on a bridge that opened within a year of his grandfather dying. In this way, over generations, an epic challenge recruits a champion. A man ready to stand for hours in the howling wind to convince a stranger to hang on for one more day.
What are the true roots of heroism? The courage to see past the pain of today? To hold steady in the face of travail? Every great man gets it from somewhere, somewhere deep within himself. Sometimes so deep it goes back generations. It is that unchanging thing, the thing that will not be moved. The rock, the foundation.
Briggs’s foundation descends so far he barely notices it. But this is as it should be. It lets him stay focused on what matters.
“It’s them doing it,” he says, not for the first time. “I’m just out there throwing a bunch of words at ’em. And sometimes you’ll get the look, the bright eyes when they come back over, instead of the hurt and pain. And after a little bit they’ll settle down, and you’ll see in their eyes — that gleam.”