Some people think jumping off a bridge is a peaceful way to go. One Marin County, CA, coroner, for example, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005 that there’s a persistent myth that it’s a “light, airy way to end your life, like going to join the angels.” But committing suicide by jumping off a bridge, the coroner says, is “not a pretty death,” and he should know: he works in the same county as the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world’s most popular spots for jumping to your death.
So what happens when you jump off a bridge that high? It’s nothing like Olympic high diving, regardless of the skill of the jumper. You hit the water at 75 miles per hour, and after that, a surprising number of things could kill you. Read on to find out what jumping off a bridge really does to your body, and just how slim of a chance you’d have of surviving.
You'll Probably Die from Multiple Blunt-Force Injuries
If you jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, for example, you’ll likely die from multiple blunt-force injuries. This is the “coroner’s usual verdict,” according to Tad Friend’s 2003 New Yorker feature “Jumpers.” In other words, as John Koopman of the San Francisco Chronicle observes, “you die the same way as someone hit by a car.”
The Golden Gate Bridge makes an excellent “testing ground” for this gruesome topic because so manypeople (1500+) have fallen or jumped from its 239-foot to 261-foot heights (depending on where they were on the bridge). By comparison, a mere 186-foot freefall is considered to be the “upper survival limits of human tolerance to impact velocity in water.”
Is your death a sure thing? Not exactly, but damn close: a 1968 FAA study on the topic, “Fatal Injuries From Extreme Water Impact,” says that at that time “99.3 percent of falls [from the Golden Gate Bridge] have been fatal.” Needless to say, the physics of the fall haven’t changed since the ‘60s.
Your Ribs Will Break
Experts agree that your ribs are probably going to break. It happens in about 85 percent of cases involving people who have jumped or fallen from the Golden Gate Bridge. The research says that the impact on the water causes “extensive fractures to the rib cage, usually bilateral and multiple fractures involving every rib.” This happens through sheer force: bodies hit the water “at about seventy-five miles an hour and with a force of fifteen thousand pounds per square inch,” according to the New Yorker.
Rib damage is overwhelmingly common: by comparison, only one-third of cases feature fractured arms or legs and only 15 percent of cases feature fractured vertebrae.
Chances Are, Your Organs Will Tear Loose
Physics tells us that a body hitting the water at 75 miles per hour will come to a stop… or at least the “outer body” will. Your internal organs, according to John Bateson, author of The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, will “keep going, tearing loose from their connections.”
Since most, if not all, of your rib bones will fracture, you’ll basically have tiny sharp bone fragments inside your body to contend with, too. These jagged bones will rip through the spleen, lungs, heart, and other organs.
Coast Guard officer Ron Wilton has seen the damage firsthand. He told the New Yorker it’s like “someone took an eggbeater to the organs of the body and ground everything up.”
Drowning Is a Definite Possibility, Too
If your injuries from the impact with the water don’t kill you, there’s a chance that you’ll simply drown. Since you hit the water so fast – 75 miles per hour – you plunge pretty deep.
When the Coast Guard pulls your body out, they can actually tell at a glance if you drowned or not. The tell-tale sign? “Frothy mucus bubbles from the nose.” It doesn’t happen that often, however, since most people don’t live long enough to inhale enough water.
Crabs Might Eat Your Face
It’s an incredibly unpleasant thought, but jumping off a bridge into a large body of water means “severe marine depredation” of bodies not immediately recovered. This sometimes means shark attacks, but more frequently, crab attacks, and they’re very particular about how they dine on you.
Herb Lopez, a Golden Gate Bridge safety patrol sergeant, told Salon they often “go for the eyeballs first, then the soft flesh on the cheeks.”
Lopez knows this because bodies are often recovered using a so-called crab basket, along with a grappling hook, meaning he gets a firsthand look at the damage. “A lot of times, we pull bodies out with crabs hanging off them.”
Your Body May Never Be Found
In the case of Golden Gate Bridge jumpers, the Coast Guard, unfortunately, doesn’t always find the bodies. There are instances, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, of witnesses reporting jumpers who are later never seen again. The Guard, once notified, drops a smoke flare in the water to mark the entry point, but that can take up to five minutes in the best of circumstances.
The New Yorker reported two “vanished” bodies in 2003, possible eaten by sharks or aquatic life. The eddies “stirred by the bridge’s massive stone piers,” Tad Friend explains, can sometimes cause bodies to wash up 30 miles away. Some, however, just never wash up at all.
Your Reproductive System Won't Be Injured
Oddly enough, in Richard Snyder’s 1968 study “Fatal Injuries Resulting From Extreme Water Impact,” of the 169 individuals examined, not a single one of them had any injuries to the reproductive system. This is good news, of course, for the rare survivors of such falls. Snyder’s observations on the topic are brief, but haunting:
There were no injuries in any of these cases to the reproductive system. Although one woman was pregnant and in her second trimester, there was no injury to the uterus or fetus.
Survivors Will Likely Fracture Their Vertabrae
If you do survive jumping off a bridge, there’s a good chance you’ll fracture your vertebrae. That’s the most common single injury noted for survivors in Richard Snyder’s 1965 study “Survival of High-Velocity Free-Falls in Water” (the “first lumbar and twelfth thoracic,” to be exact).
When Kevin Hines survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000, for example, his injuries were in line with Snyder’s findings:
So I was in the air, I threw my head back, my feet came around, and I landed at a 45-degree angle. [The doctors] said if I had landed 1 centimeter to the left or right, I would have severed my spinal cord and drowned. What I did do was shatter two vertebrae [in the middle of my back], and they shattered into tiny little pieces. I felt the explosion in my stomach, the vertebrae shot right into my organs. Your Clothes Can Act Like a Parachute
It wouldn’t be nearly effective as, say, having a parachute, but what you’re wearing when jumping off a bridge can actually increase your chances of survival. The first known survivor to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, Cornelia Van Ireland, was wearing a rather large coat. Doctors think it might have acted somewhat like a parachute, slowing her down a bit as she approached the water.
Research also indicates that protective clothing may have saved lives in similar cases. Gear such as boots, helmets, flotation devices, and even just heavy clothing like Cornelia’s coat have been shown to prevent certain injuries. But the chances of survival are ultimately very slim, regardless of your gear: fewer than 40 people (out of 1600+) have ever survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.