Kevin Briggs reflects on 18 years of stopping Golden Gate Bridge suicides

As CHP Officer Kevin Briggs arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge’s North Tower, the jumper lifted himself over the rail. Briggs shouted out to him, and the man turned his body as he went over and landed on what is known as the chord, a 32-inch pipe that runs the length of the bridge, just below its lip.

Briggs’ first thought was that he had lost the man, but Kevin Berthia’s head was pressed against the red steel railing. The wind pressed against his back.

As Briggs rushed toward him, Berthia told him to stay back. Briggs did. He just wanted to talk, he said. Or listen.

A little more than 1½ hours later, Briggs and a colleague helped Berthia climb back over the rail.

“I honestly feel it could have been anyone in the world, and if it wouldn’t have been him, I wouldn’t be here today,” Berthia, during a recent phone interview, said of the March 11, 2005, encounter. He was preparing to speak at a Suicide Prevention Awareness Month event in Connecticut, where he would appear with Briggs, who retired in 2013 and lives in Petaluma.

“I needed him, who he is,” Berthia says.

In the 18 years he patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge, Briggs became oddly famous: he was the officer who saved would-be suicides. His TED talk video has been viewed more than 236,000 times. A painting by a fellow officer hangs in his den: in bright colors it depicts an angel with Briggs’ face reaching out toward a group of people standing on the chord who are reaching back toward him; Briggs’ is smiling, his expression one of concern.

He lives in a newish development of two-story hillside houses in west Petaluma with a view across Highway 101 to the hills outside town. In his garage is a waist-high safe that holds a large cache of bronze medallions the size of a large coin. They advertise his consulting service, Pivotal Points, which focuses on suicide prevention. Each is stamped with the title of Briggs’ memoir, “Guardian of the Golden Gate,” which he currently is promoting.

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world’s most prominent suicide locations. From its edges - nearly always the east one, because the vast majority of people contemplating suicide position themselves facing San Francisco - Briggs talked more than 200 people out of leaping.

He knows this because of what are termed “100 forms,” which CHP officers must file after their shifts, detailing every on-duty incident. They show the people he saved; they show the two he didn’t, those that he considers his failures. There were an average of four to six would-be suicides a month, he says.

A small, black-and-white sign is propped atop a tool chest in his garage: a revolver is aimed out of the sign, which reads: “Nothing inside is worth dying for.”

Dealing with depression

Briggs suffers from depression. It overtook him gradually, he says, until he sought help in the mid-1990s. He takes medication but won’t reveal publicly which one. “This is a crappy thing to say, but people say, ‘I want to be like Kevin Briggs, I want to take that drug.’ But maybe it’s the wrong one,” he says.

Briggs, who joined the Army out of high school and worked as a San Quentin State Prison guard before joining the CHP, says that he never has wrestled with serious thoughts of suicide. But depression remains a fixture in his life.

“It seems to be going OK. I think there’s room for improvement,” he says.

He is 52, 5 feet 9 inches tall, with brown hair touched at the temples by gray. Creases fan south from the corners of his eyes. He has fought testicular cancer, heart disease, and injuries from a motorcycle accident that left him with a concussion and rendered him unfit for work for months. He looks appropriately world-weary. But his eyes are warm and bright.

He grew up in Novato, where his ex-wife, from whom he was divorced in 2009, two sons, and his sister live together. His paternal grandfather killed himself - poisoning by carbon monoxide - when his father was young. Briggs says that because his father knows very little about that event, neither does he.

Over the course of a long conversation, Briggs’ voice rarely loses its even, competent tone. It’s easy to imagine him speaking gently, conversationally, with the desperate and lost.

Disappointed by church

Occasionally, though, another key is struck, as when he explains why he hasn’t gone to church since his mid-20s.

Briggs’ father was a staunch Catholic who attended Our Lady of Loretto Church in Novato. Briggs and his three siblings went through the parish school. But when his mother, a Protestant, died at age 49 of cancer, the church wouldn’t permit her Mass to take place there.

“I’m still a believer, absolutely,” Briggs says. But telling this story his voice takes on an unforgiving edge, more like one expects a cop to sound.

“Now, I want to reiterate, my dad had put four kids through that Catholic school. All four kids, and it cost money. He did a lot of work for that church, he would be up on that pulpit on Sundays speaking, he did fundraisers. He did a lot for that church. And because she wasn’t a Catholic they wouldn’t let her come across the street and have a Mass. And that really burned me.”

Before an interview, Briggs had arranged a neat pile of documents that included information about his book, which was published this summer, and his work, which involves speaking nationwide at suicide-prevention conferences, schools, before law enforcement groups and other professional associations, and to family survivors of suicide.

“My focus is not very good,” he says. “I take a lot of medications - depression, blood pressure, cholesterol.”

But during the interview, he doesn’t consult his notes nor get lost in his sentences.

Take his story about his son Kevin, now 14, who last year struggled, too, with depression, cut himself, and spoke about suicide. Briggs wasn’t aware any of that was happening. Recounting those events, his voice at times grows strained, but he moves briskly through it.

He was returning from a trip when his younger son, Travis, now 12, called, reaching him at the airport.

“He said, ‘Dad, you need to get home quick.’?”

Travis called again later, telling his father, “When you get here, you have to say nice words to Kevin.”

Kevin was in the backyard of the Novato house. “Hey, baby boy,” Briggs said. He put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “He just broke down.”

At a counseling session the next day, the therapist asked Kevin whether he had ever cut himself - “We call it non-surgical self-injury,” Briggs adds. Kevin mimed stabbing his wrist.

“I had to look away from both of them.” Briggs says. “I could feel myself tearing up, I thought, ‘God, I’m missing everything here. All of this stuff is happening. And I talk about this stuff. And here it is happening in my house.’ I’m feeling an inch high.

“Poor little guy.”

Kevin’s psyche seems mended now, and he says he does not remember indicating that he had cut himself, Briggs says. But he now keeps a much closer eye on both his boys.

“I fell right into that category of public servants, caregivers, who give, give, give and fail to see or just neglect their families. I fell into that,” he says.

Now, he says, “I watch more. And when I talk to them - not every time - but I will sit them down separately and say, ‘How’s it going? How’s the mind? Would you be able to tell me if something’s going on? I want you to be able to call me at any time of day or night and tell me if something’s going on.’?”

Drugs, alcohol not factor

More than 70 percent of the people he was called out to help on the bridge were white males, Briggs says. Most of them appeared not to be under the immediate influence of drugs or alcohol.

Of all those he talked with until they changed their minds and stepped back to safety, he remains in contact with only one, Berthia, who is now 33.

A lifelong depressive condition, the deaths of loved ones, a divorce, the stresses of fatherhood, the loss of a job - all of those drove Berthia, then 22, to the bridge that day.

He and Briggs - but mostly he - talked for 92 minutes before clambering back over the rail.

“I felt like I went through thousands of people just to get to the bridge, and be at my worst, and he wouldn’t give up on me - If I wanted to let go, it was a constant reminder, a distraction, that someone was there with me,” Berthia says.

The CHP never trained Briggs in how to work with prospective suicides. He chuckles when asked whether it had. But he was a conscientious student.

“I would ask people when they came back over, if they wouldn’t mind me asking, ‘What did I say that was good and what did I say, what actions, were poor?’ And they would always tell me,” he says.

“Things that did not go well were, ‘I understand.’ That makes people angry,” Briggs says. “Because you don’t understand, and I totally get that now. I do not understand what is going on with that person. That is a very poor thing to say.”

By the time Briggs met Berthia just south of the bridge’s massive north tower, he was skilled at the delicate job of coaxing people back from the precipice. “As cops, we run in there and try to handle the situation, and with these folks who are contemplating suicide, you can’t do that. You have to take a step back and be a lot more flexible and patient. It’s a whole different realm of law enforcement,” he says.

“They feel they’re in a corner, nobody’s ever been through what they’re going through, and they’re alone. My job is to get them out of that corner.”

With Berthia, that process started with Briggs holding back, silent, for 15 minutes.

“Add that to 92 minutes,” Berthia says. “It took 15 minutes of me yelling at him to stay back before we even started talking.”

Then, Berthia says, “it was 92 minutes, and every one of those minutes it was me talking and him mostly listening.”

Berthia and Briggs, who maintain a relationship on Facebook and through occasional phone calls, have spoken together at public suicide awareness and prevention events. But they have never spoken privately about that occasion, when a San Francisco Chronicle photographer captured a shot showing Berthia, in basketball shorts and a white T-shirt, perched on the chord, clinging to the railing, his forehead pressed against the red steel. Briggs leans on the rail above him, his chin resting on clasped hands.

“He said just enough to kind of grab my attention,” Berthia says. He let me feel that I was in control of that whole situation. It’s a great feeling to have when you feel like everything’s out of control.”

Not everyone saved

Jason Garber, 32, flew cross-country from New Jersey and, when he got to the Golden Gate Bridge, before he climbed over the rail to sit on the chord, he activated the mid-span emergency phone, alerting CHP officers and the bridge’s own security force.

It was July 22, 2013. It was the fifth time Garber had gone to or tried to go to the bridge to commit suicide.

Having arrived after another CHP officer, Elpidio Rocha, Briggs took a more background role in the encounter, speaking when he thought it would be useful. He was impressed by Garber’s wide-ranging intelligence. At some point, he talked to the younger man about his fight against cancer.

At another point, Rocha offered his coat to Garber. That Garber put it on was a good sign.

“We can’t lose him,” Briggs recalls thinking.

“What Kevin didn’t know and couldn’t possibly know was that Jason was out of hope,” says Marvin Garber, Jason’s father.

In “Guardian of the Gate,” Briggs describes the taut, awful denouement:

“Then, Jason began to take off Elpidio’s jacket, which caused Elpidio to become quite emotional, almost begging Jason to leave the jacket on.

“We all knew what this meant. Jason was preparing himself. As Jason handed the jacket back to Elpidio, Elpidio made a grab for Jason’s arm. Jason jerked back, instantly pulling away from Elpidio. It was as if both Elpidio and Jason knew each had a job to do.

“We were silent for several seconds, trying to come up with something encouraging or positive to say. Jason smiled at us briefly then turned his head to face forward, looking toward the North Tower. I could see a tear come from his right eye. He straightened his body, leaned to his right, and was gone.”

Sometimes, Briggs says, it is easy to tell when death’s lure is too strong.

“He’s just gearing up and ready to go. You can tell him, ‘I’ll give you a mind transplant and $2 million,’ and they’re going to go.

“But with Jason, I thought we were kind of in the middle of our negotiations, so to speak. I had learned a lot about him.”

Today, Kevin Briggs and Marvin Garber have a relationship at once distant and forever sealed. They are Facebook friends, though that doesn’t extend further than occasional comments. They last spoke on the eve of the publication of Briggs’ book. Garber isn’t sure he would want to be or could be closer friends with Briggs.

“I think there’s a bond in that he was the last person to deal with my son. On the other hand, he was the last person to be with Jason,” Garber says.

But he is grateful it was Briggs who attended to his son. He says, “I’m glad that it wasn’t a rookie who may have never had that extra hour to get to know Jason. Kevin did.”

Briggs’ and Garber’s accounts of what took place later that night, when Briggs called the family to tell them what had happened, differ markedly.

Briggs says when he eventually called the Garber family, Marvin Garber unleashed a punishing torrent of emotions on him.

“Denial and the anger and the pain all came through the phone call that night,” Briggs says, adding that Garber demanded of him, “?‘Why didn’t I do my job?’?” I could see those first three, the denial, anger and pain, nailing me.”

Garber is astounded at that version of events.

“Kevin cried on the phone that night,” he says. “I think that’s a projection. The denial and pain certainly, but certainly not the anger. I was not angry at him. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

Symptoms of stress

Not long ago, Briggs went on a trip to talk about suicide and, while he was gone, his girlfriend, Mary Ziegenbein, a 12-year veteran CHP officer, attended a class about mental illness at which a test for post-traumatic stress disorder was discussed.

“I went home and I said, ‘You have seven out of 10 of these things, you should probably go and talk to somebody,’?” Ziegenbein says. “He internalizes everything. It was a real eye-opener for me that he has all these symptoms and he didn’t want to talk about it.”

Ziegenbein offered to accompany him to see a counselor, if that would help.

Briggs refused.

“He can’t sleep more than five or six hours,” Ziegenbein says. “Super minor” things upset him, “they turn that switch on.”

“I would have to sit there and say, ‘Why is this bothering you so much?’ And he would be like, ‘I don’t know.’?”

Asked about this, Briggs, for the first time, mumbles, so much so that later his words are indistinguishable on a recording of the interview. Then he says, “You’re in the Army, Corrections, this job, you see a lot of crap. That’s just how it goes.”

Plus, he adds, sounding a little indignant, “I don’t want to really relive all this stuff either.”

Instead, he looks forward.

“What I want to do in maybe 10 years or so, is move to a place in the woods, not off the grid but out there a ways, like in the Tahoe area by a lake or a stream, but with some land, and come out on my back deck with a cup of coffee and watch the elk, the wild turkey, the squirrels. And that would be my day.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or On Twitter @jeremyhay.

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