Survivor tells local high school students he jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, and immediately regretted it
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — What does it take to survive a fall from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge? For Kevin Hines, one of the few to have done so, his survival hinged on two incredible strokes of good luck. The first bit of luck was his timing: The moment that he chose to leap over the railing was the exact moment that a particular woman was driving by, who immediately called her friend, a Coast Guard officer who happened to be working that day on a rescue boat in San Francisco Bay. The second stroke came in the form of a sea lion, which – and eyewitnesses watching from the bridge attested to this – circled underneath Hines as he tried to stay afloat and nudged him toward the surface when he struggled.
But, as Hines told an auditorium full of students at Gilford High School on Tuesday, April 18, it would have been much easier for someone to have stopped him from jumping, had they only taken a minute to see him.
"'Are you OK? Is something wrong? Can I help you?' These were the only words I wanted to hear when I stood atop the Golden Gate Bridge," Hines told the audience.
Most of the seats were filled with Gilford students, although there were representatives from other Lakes Region schools there as well. Gilford, like every other public high school in the region, has a team of student leaders who are trained to help turn the tides against suicide.
As Hines's story underlined for those students, the interactions he had with people, both years before and immediately preceding his attempt to kill himself, combined with his mental illness to set the stage for near tragedy.
Hines, who was 19 years old when he took a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge during a September morning in 2000, was dealt about as bad a hand as one can receive. He was born to parents who were both mentally ill, and both had turned to hard drug use to cope with their illnesses. For Hines, who was born with the name Giovanni, and his brother, Jordache, their infancy was spent in neglect, left in disreputable hotel rooms while their parents were out, either looking for, selling or using drugs. The baby boys were rescued from the situation by a hotel clerk, who tired of hearing their cries and called police.
That led to entry into the foster home system for Hines and his brother, though they weren't out of danger yet. A respiratory infection stayed with them, and Jordache died shortly thereafter, leaving Hines completely without a family. That changed when he was 9 years old, though, when Deborah Jones Hines walked into the foster home. She brought him into their family, and Hines was so happy that he eventually took the name of his adoptive father.
"My childhood was beautiful," he said. "I got lucky, unlike my brother ... for a minute. We were a family that was happy, until we weren't." His adoptive parents divorced, and Hines went to live with his father. Meanwhile, Hines's mental illness, later diagnosed as bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies, was prepared to make itself known. It did so while he was on the stage of his high school auditorium, performing the lead role, when he became convinced that every person in the audience was there to kill him. He ran from the stage and refused his director's plea to finish the show.
Hines then began receiving treatment for his illness, but he didn't tell his father everything he was experiencing. He didn't tell him how he was convinced that the postman was planning to find and kill him, and how running from this imagined threat kept him from attending classes at a local college. And, on the morning of his suicide attempt, he didn't tell his dad what the voices in his head were saying – or that he was planning to follow their instructions.
"I thought I was a burden to everyone who loved me, I thought they hated me, I thought they wanted me dead," Hines said, adding that he was silent in his suffering. "I desperately wanted to live but my brain was trying to kill me. I put a mask over me that made me look like I was calm, cool and collected on the worst day of my life."
By the time the bus he was on was nearing the Golden Gate Bridge, the mask couldn't hide Hines's illness. He was sobbing and talking to himself, but his fellow passengers only treated him with mild amusement. At the stop for the bridge, Hines stood and waited while everyone else departed. The driver, instead of seeing an opportunity to help someone, looked at Hines and then gestured at the door. Then, for 40 minutes, Hines walked up and down the length of the bridge, alternating between finding a place to jump, or hoping someone would stop him. No one did. Finally, he threw himself off the bridge.
One he was over the railing, he said he experienced "Instant regret for my action in free fall." He fell 25 stories in about 4 seconds, hit the water with such speed that he kept descending for about 70 feet below the surface of San Francisco Bay. Down there, under the water, he resolved to survive. Because, if he died, he thought, no one would know about how strongly he wanted to live.
But he was also in tremendous pain. The force of his body hitting the water had broken his back, and he couldn't use his legs. Still, he managed to fight his way to the surface of the frigid water, only to be struck with another handicap. A lifelong asthmatic, his lungs couldn't take in enough oxygen. He began to falter, and slip back below the waves. That's when he felt something swim underneath him. It was big, gray and kind of slimy, he said. He initially thought it was a shark, but observers on the bridge later told him it was a sea lion, nudging him upward until the Coast Guard appeared.
Hines spent the next several months rehabilitating, both from his back surgery and for his mental health concerns. Soon, he began to see that his survival came with a debt that he could repay through suicide awareness and prevention, which is how he was came to Gilford High School. Later that day, he also spoke at Franklin High School. He told the students that every one of them has the ability to affect others around them, whether it's with malice or compassion.
"Your words have the power to do one of two things – damage and destroy, or help and heal," he said.
"If you know someone who is suicidal, the one thing you can't do is keep that secret, because that secret is deadly."
After his talk, Hines fielded questions and comments from the audience. One student said that he had thought about killing himself, and that he would remember Hines's words for the rest of his life.
Hines's visit was sponsored in part by the Partnership for Public Health.
Help and Heal
That truth is something that the Connect Student Suicide Prevention Leaders know well. Those students are trained to give presentations for their peers, describing warning signs exhibited by a suicidal person, letting them know what they can do to help, and telling them that they have a responsibility to help. In fact, it was Marina Baer, a senior at Gilford and one of the Connect leaders, who was responsible for Hines's visit. She heard about him, visited his website, and clicked on the "contact" button. It was a year-old effort to get Hines to come to Gilford, she said, but she felt that his message was one that her school needed to hear.
"I feel pretty good about it, the kids really appreciated it. It had a lot of impact on a lot of students," she said. "It opened up doors to students. Now they know they can talk to people."
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255