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The Mysteries of the Suicide Tourist

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Barriers have been erected at the Empire State Building.  

In New York, some 30 people have jumped from the Empire State Building since it opened, in 1931. The George Washington Bridge sees some ten suicides per year. In 2002 and 2003, years in which Stephen stayed at the Marriott Marquis, three people jumped to their deaths at the hotel, two of whom lived outside New York. In 2003 and 2004, five New York University students jumped to their deaths from a handful of sites on and off campus.

On the morning of February 15, 1997, John and Marilyn Barrachina woke up at home with plans to attend a wedding later in the day. Despite the fact that they themselves were having marital problems, Marilyn wished her husband a happy 59th birthday. “Maybe I’ll just kill myself,” John responded. He was being dramatic, she thought, self-pitying. But when it came time to go to the wedding, John was missing. Marilyn didn’t imagine anything too awful could have happened, despite John’s earlier comment. So she, John Jr., and her daughter-in-law went to the wedding, telling those who asked that John was sick. They returned home to find policemen and a priest waiting at the house. They said that at around ten o’clock that morning, John had driven roughly ten miles to the George Washington Bridge, crossed it into Manhattan, then turned right around and started back over. On the second pass, he stopped his car, got out, and jumped. There was no hesitation, a witness said. He left no note.

Before the day of his 59th birthday, John Barrachina had never tried to kill himself. He had no history of depression. He had never talked or joked about suicide, says Marilyn. If the family was going into the city, John Jr. says, they took the Lincoln Tunnel. John’s marital problems had quickly sent him into a deep depression. But why New York? Why the George Washington Bridge? “Living in the New York area,” says John Jr., “the George Washington Bridge is an icon. And it’s kind of an expression. You know—I’ll jump off the George Washington Bridge.” Marilyn offers this explanation: “I think that was just the easy way for him to do it,” she says.

After Stephen died, Judith discovered he’d stopped seeing his psychiatrist months earlier, had gone off his medications, and had been emptying out his room for weeks, giving away clothes, books, and even sheets and pillowcases (he kept the receipts from the Salvation Army). His suicide note mentioned relationship difficulties and laments about structural problems with his home. Judith knows, rationally, that Stephen’s depression is to blame for his death, but she can’t say, ultimately, why her son killed himself. Nor has she settled on a single answer to why Stephen chose New York or the Marriott. Because of the height, she guesses one moment. Because it was far from home, she offers at another. Judith says Stephen never mentioned the other suicides at the Marriott. But it seems possible that he would have known about them. As his depression deepened, she says, he probably worked out a script. Stephen was very thorough, Judith says, very exacting. “He probably researched it himself.”

New York will always have its glamour and anonymity, its tall buildings and bridges. And the city can’t screen visitors to determine who’s suicidal and who isn’t. To some extent, so-called suicide tourism is apt to be a permanent part of our culture, a grim, unwanted side effect of some of the very things that make the city so appealing. That said, experts say there’s a surprisingly simple and effective way to combat the problem: Make suicide harder to carry out, site by site, and make it easier for people to get help. The Empire State Building has a high, inwardly curved fence encircling the observation deck and guards who keep watch, which makes jumping extremely difficult. No one has died by jumping at the Marriott Marquis since Stephen took his own life. During renovations of the hotel last year, Marriott erected metal grillwork that impedes access to the atrium. After NYU’s rash of suicides, the university expanded counseling and outreach programs, restricted access to certain dormitory balconies, and erected Plexiglas barriers in the atrium of the school’s library, where a student had killed himself.

The George Washington Bridge, on the other hand, is heavily patrolled and monitored, and call boxes connect with Port Authority police. But none of that changes the fact that the barriers are low and relatively easy to scale. “Whatever security they have, it’s not good enough,” says John Barrachina Jr. “I can tell you from experience.” Kevin Hines has similar feelings about the Golden Gate Bridge. The failure to build higher railings at a place where some nineteen people kill themselves each year is, he says, “maddening, amoral, and disgusting.” Suicide-prevention experts also stress the importance of encouraging people who may be depressed to seek counseling. They also say it’s critical to promote awareness of hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-talk).

Judith is doing her own part. She hopes that sharing Stephen’s story might help prevent future suicides, and having recently retired from her job, she’s planning to volunteer at a suicide-prevention foundation.

Judith remains devastated by Stephen’s death. She can say his name now without crying, she says, but she still can’t read more than a few pages of his journals, and she hasn’t been back to New York since her son died. Of his last night here, she says, “I hope he had the time of his life.” Her voice is both anguished and defiant. “I hope he went all around Manhattan and saw a great play and heard music that he loved.”


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