Hell hath no fury like commuters delayed, as this classic tale from Seattle in 2001 attests:
Commuters' mood turns ugly as suicide try snarls I-5 traffic
Wednesday, August 29, 2001
By GORDY HOLT, LEWIS KAMB AND VANESSA HO
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTERS
Passing motorists, Metro bus passengers and truck drivers hurled insults and urged a distraught woman to jump from her perch on the railing of the Interstate 5 Ship Canal Bridge Tuesday morning.
Police rushed to the scene to try to talk the 26-year-old Tacoma-area woman out of attempting suicide. But as the region's busiest freeway disintegrated into a massive traffic jam, the mood of some commuters grew ugly.
"People were yelling, 'Jump, bitch, jump!'" Seattle Police Department spokesman Clem Benton said. "Now who wants to hear that in this type of a situation?"
One Seattle radio station appeared to poke fun at the woman's predicament, peppering its live broadcast with splashdown sound effects.
Fearful that she would succumb to the taunts, police shut the freeway down in both directions at 8 a.m., snarling thousands of motorists for more than two hours. Traffic was backed up from Northgate to the West Seattle Bridge exit. Side streets quickly became clogged.
The woman finally jumped, taking a 160-foot plunge into Lake Union.
Surprisingly, she survived the equivalent of a fall from a 16-story building. Last night, she was listed in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center.
Yesterday's mob ugliness seemed to have further tarnished Seattle's image as a polite, mellow metropolis, causing some to wonder if the Emerald City is getting meaner.
Historians and psychologists drew no conclusions, but pointed to a mainstream culture increasingly inured to violence and crisis. And they said people who cling to the notion that Seattle is somehow "kinder and gentler" than other cities are self-deluded.
"This town is not immune to mob psychosis and violence. You go back to lynchings, anti-Chinese riots, anti-radical riots, race riots," said historian Walt Crowley, executive director of HistoryLink.org, an online encyclopedia of local history.
Still, he called yesterday's crowd "a rare display of mass incivility."
Police were alerted to the drama about 6:20 a.m. when commuters first noticed the woman sitting on the railing on the bridge's southbound side. A car was parked in the emergency lane nearby.
She sat facing out, her heels propped on a section of round conduit shackled to the pavement's vertical side.
During hours of tense negotiations yesterday, specially trained officers talked to the woman. Included were at least four hostage negotiators and three officers from the department's Crisis Intervention Team.
"The first thing (officers) will do in this type of situation is ask, 'What can we do for you? Can we call anyone who can help you?'" Benton said. "We try to take the time to work with people and assist them in any way we can."
After talking to the woman, officers asked that one of her friends be brought to the scene. A short time later, Washington State Patrol troopers escorted a South Seattle man to the bridge.
"We've had a lot of success in these kinds of situations," Benton said.
This time, the strategy failed. Shortly after 10 a.m. the woman stood a final time, then stepped into thin air.
She tumbled several times in a fall that seemed to take forever, but lasted only a few seconds. She smacked the water hard, just south of the channel's midpoint -- a few dozen yards from the Pocock Rowing Center dock.
It was the first jump off the Ship Canal Bridge this year, authorities said.
"She kind of just cannonballed," said Holly Viola of Seattle, who was caught in the traffic jam. "She came up and she was swinging her arms, trying to swim."
Harbor Patrol divers were in the water within seconds. She was pulled aboard one of three waiting police boats and delivered to medics.
A Harborview Medical Center spokeswoman said the woman, whose name was not released, was conscious last night, with chest and abdominal injuries.
KUBE-FM shock jock Rob Tepper, who hosts the morning "T-Man Show," made light of the situation in his repartee with call-in listeners and in-studio colleagues.
KUBE general manager Alison Hesse defended Tepper yesterday, saying, "The station did not encourage listeners to heckle (the woman) or participate in anyway."
Tepper said later that he didn't encourage the woman to take her own life.
"I was shocked to learn people were telling her to jump," he said.
Had he known what people were saying, he said, he would have called them "idiots" on the air.
Asked about the sound effects, he said: "It was a 'kerplunk.' I'm not claiming this is the most sensitive show in the world. Absolutely not."
Police were taken aback by the anger flashed by the crowd, but said only a fraction of the commuters reacted that way.
The people who yelled at the woman are unable to relate to another person "as a human being," said Eric Trupin, vice chairman and professor in the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
"If this was a relative or your loved one, you could never conceive of doing something like that," he said. "It's so troubling that the response of motorists and citizens would be so unkind and non-empathic ... treating it like a sporting event."
Seattle may have a reputation for niceness, but it's not immune to big-city problems.
"It could have happened in New York. It could have happened in Tokyo," said Geoffrey Loftus, a UW psychology professor who co-wrote "Places Rated Almanac," which compared cities on different levels.
Basically, it could have happened in any city large enough to have a group of vocal, "extreme" people, he said.
The difference between here and New York City, for example, is the amount of attention given to the crowd's meanness.
"New York is so vast that an incident like that is a little more lost in the noise of everyday events...," Loftus said. "It would barely make Page 18 of The New York Times."
Crowley pointed to popular culture as a possible culprit."I don't know if it's peculiar to Seattle, but certainly our music, our TV, our films, our literature are saturated with selfishness and gratuitous violence and exploitation," he said.
"I won't get political on you, but we're not living in times that value empathy, or a sense of community."
One reader who learned about the incident on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Web site yesterday wanted to send the woman a card.
"She needs to know everyone doesn't feel like the jerks on the bus," the reader said.
Sgt. L.J. Eddy of the Crisis Intervention Team said it is not uncommon for people to urge someone threatening suicide in a public place to go through with it.
"Almost any time there's an opportunity for the public to yell, they'll do it," said Eddy, who was on the bridge yesterday.
"It's not the majority of people, but there's always one or two who seem to do it."