Thursday, January 8, 2009

Empire State Building suicides: a morbid tradition

Yesterday the media reported the grim news that a woman committed suicide by leaping out a 39-story window of the Empire State Building. The woman was an employee in the building; however New York's most recognizable symbol, and its 102 floors, has been the final destination for over 30 people since it opened its doors in 1931. (According to one source, 35 as of 2006. Make that 36, I guess.)

Why do people choose famous places to leap from? Is it simply to grab attention, to attach a sense of the iconic to your final moment? Are they hoping they get caught before leaping? The Empire State, destined to represent the city's promise and pure ambition, has also been a magnet for morbid thoughts even during its construction.

A construction worker, laid off in a swath of Great Depression job cuts, jumped from the building before it was even completed. (He chose to go in a different direction : the elevator shaft.) In 1947, a 23 year old woman jumped from the building to hit a United Nations limousine, resulting in an extremely famous Life Magazine photograph. (Go ahead, look. It's strangely serene.) In fact, there were a rash of suicide attempts from the observation deck in 1947, including one jumper who seriously injured a pedestrian walking in the street below.

According to a paper by the New York Academy of Medicine, midtown Manhattan has seen dozens of suicides over the years, particularly from non-residents of the city, combining fantasies of their own ends with those of the city's grandeur. This has of course caused safety concerns for people on the ground -- "They said the man landed on a van parked on 33d Street" says a New York Times account of one event in 1981 -- to the extent that the Empire State Building has had 'suicide fences' on its observation deck for many years. (Since, no surprise, 1947.)



However, believe it or not, somebody did survive a leap from the Empire State Building. She just didn't fall very far.

As the story goes, in 1979, a depressed woman Elvita Adams jumped from the 86th floor to end her life. Yet the wind gusts can be quite powerful that high up and, unfortunately for her, one powerful gust actually blew her back into the building one floor below, breaking her hip. She was apprehended before she could try again. (And really, if something that extraordinary happens, she might have wanted to reconsider it anyway.)

Of course, not everybody who attempts this horrible leap has a deathwish. Stunt aficionado Jeb Corliss was arrested in April 2006 when he tried to leap from the building wearing a parachute. Some of you may remember the heart stopping video of the man being apprehended from the other side of the fences. (A screenshot is below.)

Having just written all of that, I almost feel required to put information for the New York Suicide and Crisis Hotline. You may now return to enjoying the Empire State Building as the vibrant, living, joyous icon of the city.

14 comments:

  1. A few years ago back I ran over The Golden Gate Bridge. It is very easy to go over the rail there. Every hundred feet or so there was the phone number to the crisis hotline.

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    1. Youtube "The Bridge". Full length documentary of suicides over the Golden Gate.

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  2. NPR did a great show years back about the history of suicides at Niagara Falls, too. Seems like any tall landmark is a magnet for jumpers.

    Does the 30+ suicides in its history make the Empire State Building the most suicide-prone spot in the city, I wonder?

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  3. The Brooklyn Bridge has had many more jumpers -- it's over 40 years old, after all -- but it's only equivalent to a ten story jump and many survive, sometimes without a scratch: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/2008/06/03/2008-06-03_brooklyn_bridge_jumper_survives_without_-1.html

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    1. The Brooklyn bridge was built in 1883, how is it 40 years old?

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    2. I think what he meant was that the Brooklyn Bridge is over 40 years older than the empire state building

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  4. New York magazine had a great story last year about suicide tourism in NY. I believe the George Washington Bridge was the biggest hotspot. A couple hotels in midtown were also used. I think most of these people are looking for one huge, notable punctuation mark at the end of their lives.

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  5. Whatever floats their boats. Fact is, dude, I’ll croak, you’ll croak, all of U.S. will croak someday at sometime; then, we must face the King of the Universe, Jesus, to determine whether we achieve Heaven. So don’t get so caught-up in this passing earth you lose your immortal soul. PS I gave up my hard-won, black belt to fight for Heaven. Wotya gonna give up, brudda? God blessa youse -Fr. Sarducci, ol SNL.

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  6. By far the weirdest and cruelest suicide destination that I've ever heard of was the Carousel Center in Syracuse NY. Fewer than half a dozen have died this way, but it's crazy to me that even more than one person, let alone five or six, would commit suicide only six stories up, landing in a spot populated mostly by small children. It's almost like hanging yourself from the monkey bars at a playground.

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  7. Evelyn McHale is the name of the woman who jumped in 1947 and it is quite surreal how peaceful the image is.

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  8. My grandfather spent a couple of years in the States at the beginning of the 20th Century. On the ship's manifest for his return journey to England is an entry regarding deaths on board during the voyage. Apparently one passenger committed suicide by throwing himself into New York harbour! Wonder why he paid all that money for an Atlantic crossing when he could have jumped from the Staten Island Ferry for free?

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  9. Here in north London we have Suicide Bridge on archway / Highgate - an area notorious for hauntings / phenomena - Stephen King wrote about this in his short story 'Crouch End' when he came here to visit his friend Peter Straub , who lived in Crouch End at that time ...

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  10. NYU's Bobst Library has also has its share of suicides by stressed-out students. The building was still going up when I attended school there. Recently, barriers have gone up to prevent any more suicides.

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  11. Fall Creek bridge at Cornell in Ithica NY has been a problem every Spring semester for years.

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