Windsor teen survives leap from Golden Gate Bridge
By KERRY BENEFIELD AND JULIE JOHNSON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A 17-year-old Windsor High School student on a school-sponsored field trip to San Francisco leaped from the Golden Gate
Bridge on Thursday — and survived.
Luhe “Otter” Vilagomez, a junior who friends and school staff said enrolled at the school in the last week of February, was with a group of about 45 humanities students on a field trip to the de Young Museum. The field trip is conducted every other year with humanities students and typically includes a class walk across the bridge.
The students, most of whom were wearing matching black class T-shirts that read “Keep Hope Alive,” were approaching the southern end of the span under dark clouds and dreary weather at about 11 a.m. when Vilagomez climbed the railing and launched himself feet first toward the water about 220 feet below.
“Me and a couple of friends were looking over the edge at some surfers. All of a sudden I see Otter, he jumps into my view. I didn’t see him hit the water because I was freaking out,” said senior Hailee Zastrow, who was near Vilagomez when he jumped.
Coast Guard rescuers launched a boat from the Marin shore at the north end of the bridge, but the teen had reached shore before they got there, Coast Guard officials said.
“He landed in the water and with the assistance of a surfer, he swam to shore,” CHP Officer Chris Rardin said.
The teen was taken to San Francisco General Hospital to be evaluated “medically and psychiatrically,” Rardin said. A hospital spokesperson declined comment, citing privacy concerns. The boy reportedly sustained a broken tailbone and punctured lung, according to sources at the school.
Zastrow said her first reaction was to assume Vilagomez had attempted suicide because he had to know the deadly nature of what he was doing.
“A lot of us are thinking he must have had that thought at least. Most people don’t live when you (jump),” she said. “I just thought, ‘I just saw him commit suicide.’ I was so shaken.”
But others describe Vilagomez as someone who had made dangerous leaps before, earning the animal nickname of “Otter” to honor his Native American heritage.
“I was right next to him,” said student Jovani Silva. “I grabbed his hand, his arm right when he was about (to jump).”
Silva, who was reluctant to talk about what happened to the boy he was just beginning to know and considers a friend, said he’s convinced it was not a suicide attempt.
“No, not at all,” he said. “He was just having fun, was looking for a thrill, so he found it.”
Of the approximately 1,300 people whose jumps have been documented since 1937, only about two dozen people have survived, according to Mary Currie, Golden Gate Bridge spokeswoman. At least seven people have died jumping from the bridge this year.
Those numbers only include documented cases.
Currie said the incident was not recorded by bridge cameras. “We have a lot of cameras in a lot of areas but this was not captured,” she said.
In 2008, board members of the Golden Gate Highway and Transportation District approved the construction of a controversial suicide barrier net. The $50 million needed to install the net has not yet been raised.
Officials said Vilagomez could be cited for Thursday’s incident and bridge officials were encouraging law enforcement to consider arresting or citing the youth “if it were related to some sort of prank,” Currie said.
“The vehicle code prohibits anything from being thrown from the bridge, and that includes yourself,” Rardin said.
At least one parent and interim Windsor School District Superintendent Bill McDermott praised humanities teachers Michael Kaufman and Andrew Murdock for their handling of the scene that was described as traumatizing for all.
“From what I can tell, supervision was right there,” McDermott said. “Everybody was walking along and obviously being safe along the sidewalk on the bridge.”
Hailee Zastrow’s mother, Michelle Zastrow, said Kaufman and Murdock handled the chaotic situation with aplomb.
“If that had to happen, there couldn’t have been two better teachers on that bridge,” she said. “If anyone could have handled it, it would be them.”
“I think why I didn’t respond differently, more frantic at first, was because I knew who she was with,” Michelle Zastrow said.
Counselors were made available to students and teachers when the the bus returned at approximately 2 p.m. Counselors will be on campus again today.
Students on the Windsor High campus began receiving texts, e-mails and Twitter updates almost immediately after the incident, sending the rumor mill churning.
“I was in my history class and there was a kid in my class who stood up and started talking to my teacher. Something was up,” said Derek Snyder, a Windsor High senior.
Apparently the student’s girlfriend was on the field trip and sent a text saying her classmate had jumped.
“So we all thought it was suicide jump,” Snyder said.
More information followed and students and teachers learned that the boy had survived. The rapid flow of information prompted the district to issue a half-page press release Thursday afternoon about the “Windsor High School Student Incident” reporting that “no severe injuries have been reported.”
Students said whatever Vilagomez’s motives, there was no dare or bet among his fellow students.
“It definitely was not a dare,” said senior Cara Watts. “Nobody else had anything to do with it.”
Watts, who said she sat next to Vilagomez on the morning bus ride from Windsor to San Francisco said the junior spent most of the journey sleeping.
“Nobody knows if it was a prank or not,” she said. “My emotions are really mixed. I don’t really know what to think. It’s been a really long and tough day.”