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Windsor teen survives leap from Golden Gate Bridge

Friday, March 11th, 2011 | Posted by



A 17-year-old Windsor High School student on a school-sponsored field trip to San Francisco leaped from the Golden Gate

Golden Gate Bridge (PD FILE, 2007)

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.”

  • Dr. Dad OCD, ADHD

    It WAS “suicide”. He DID attempt suicide. How many people have survived? Not very many. Most people die. This boy knew that, just like you and I know it. This wasn’t thrill seeking. This was attempted suicide and someone better do something to help that boy.

  • Peter Chrimson

    Otter? I have another name for this kid, But who’s going to pay for his stunt? I’ll bet that the school doesn’t let any students attend the De Young any longer.
    I hope that if this kid is found sane that he has to pay restitution for his leap of stupidity.

  • Hope

    I am in the same class as him on a day, I am so sorry this has happened. I feel a great pain that is expressed on the teachers faces today.

  • Paulette

    Great – another candidate for the Darwin awards – what a total idiot this kid is – and I hope he is charged as much as the law will allow. Maybe his next “thrill” stunt WILL result in his demise – no loss. Where are his parents??

    • http://www.none.com None

      Where are his parents?? Probably at work, why would his parents be on a field trip?

      It’s pretty easy to sit around on your computer reading articles and judging people when you know absolutely nothing about the actual facts, only the “facts” that the Press Democrat reports.

      Wishing the worst upon a 17 year old kid? Geez…how low can you go? I can only assume that you are 100% perfect.

      Disappointed in humanity.

  • Phil

    A little nuts….but awesome. A lifelong story, and one for the books. Too bad for the other kids and for the people who don’t understand what compels some people. They can’t relate to the experience, and never will. They live in their frightened little worlds, in so many ways…afraid to take the big plunge. One step is all that holds them back.

  • RPWC

    Many thrills available in Afghanistan.

    • B

      There you GO !!!

  • kahuna

    Why do people get so upset with a person who obviously misjudged a prank. Society gets scared when one of it’s members do something completely ilogical and out of the ordinary. We don’t question a Mexican cliff diver when he jumps into the churning sea, or a race car driver who stares at horriffying accidents in his or her quest for thrills and excitement. My guess is that little “otter” here is really bored with the mundane existence most of us call life. For people who choose not to experience life and live under a rock, not a whole lot can happen to you. These folk may consider a hangnail terriffying. Grant you, Otter didn’t choose the right venue for his little prank and will most likely feel the sting of the law. If he is unbalanced and in need of psychiatry I am sure that he will be monitored, poked and probed,observed, interegated, and questioned until he will most assuredly want to commit suicide. I feel for the kid at every level. I feel sorry that he may be another teen who is deperately seeking an answer to whatever ails him. I feel sorry that he may have misjudged his prank but not his confidence in his physical capabilities to succeed in carrying out his stunt, and who now has to face the consequences of his actions. Whatever the outcome of this story, one thing is for sure. Otter will have to face himself in the mirror everyday knowing that he is on a short list of people who lived and who are the only ones who know their motivations and desires regardless of what we do as a society to try and understand human beings and their sometimes bizarre behavior.

    • http://www.dombrassey.com dom

      Thank you for your thoughtful, compassionate reply, kahuna.

      • none

        Couldn’t agree more. Get out and live people.

  • SF Closet Conservative

    This guy is awesome, he will become the next Evel Knievel if people would stop judging his actions and guide him to his potential. What are you going to do with a kid like this? Strait-jacket him to a desk in a class room while force-feeding him pscyh meds to “calm his problem” and then call him a failure for not being able graduate from Berkeley with an engineering or law degree? The kid has balls, something that most people don’t have these days, so let him explore it. He did break the law however, and should be punished by law. I’m just against judging this kid in a negative way for one jump.

  • A Family Member

    This young man is my family member. He was not suicidal, he is one of the race of adrenaline junkies that Evel Kenevil was born of. He is a straight A student and is an exceptional human being. We all messed up at 17. For my boy Otter, his miscalculation ended up happening in the age of internet and text messaging, and it spread like wildfire. I feel far more anger toward those who wished death upon him far more than I would ever feel anger towards what he did in a retarded teenage miscalculation. In fact he DIDN’T know this bridge was a centerplace for suicide attempts. He never once considered he would die, or even be hurt. This miracle is of God, and I will hug Otter every blessed day we continue to have him…and pray for those people so full of blind judgment and hateful negativity toward a fantastic story people don’t have all the facts of but judge as if they know everything.

  • http://www.goldengatepalms.com Be Safe Otter

    We need to give “Otter” some serious credit here. He seems to be the first person ever to jump off the bridge for fun fully intending not only to survive, but to not even get injured. Out of 2500 jumpers, only about 2 percent have survived to tell about it and most of those folks severely injured themselves. My sister broke her tailbone giving birth. That’s a no big deal injury. And a punctured lung? That’s a right of passage for the average big wave surfer. I’ve been jumping off cliffs and bridges- albeit much dwarfed from the Golden Gate- my whole life and often thought if you knew and employed the proper form of entry, you could not only survive that jump, but come up relatively injury free. Youtube “highest dive”. It’s 175′ just a mere 45′ below the gate. No one thought that guy was committing suicide. I encourage Otter to get better, be safer about his jumps, get some professional technique training (if he even needs it) and maybe try to make some cash from it. How about a 176′ platform jump in Vegas on live TV for a million bucks. Following that, he then becomes the host of the show, “jump this” where he travels the world to seek out the world’s most extreme (but reasonably survivable) jumps. I guarantee you that he won’t stop jumping, best then to do it as safe as possible and make some cash from it along the way.

    • none

      I love the way you think. A kid like this is rare and very special, he needs to explore his talents. He could make a life most would only dream of. Down right inspiring Otter, just next time maybe not while on a school field trip. ;)

  • lifespeed

    “In fact he DIDN’T know this bridge was a centerplace for suicide attempts.”

    Wow. Kind of hard to reconcile that with “straight A student”. Or are those the just-get-me-through-high-school classes he excels at?

    Supremely stupid and lucky to be alive . . .

  • USCG

    I was in the Coast Guard, stationed at Fort Point, and had to pick up many jumpers, none of whom survived. Each incident was ugly and took a little bit out of every person who had to see it and deal with pulling the broken bodies out of the water. This kid, while unthinkingly seeking an innocent thrill, did damage not only to the other kids and adults in the group he was with, but to the people who had to go out there expecting to pick up another dead body.

    • Passer

      See other people cry him, you also to cry about it.

  • sweetmuffin

    I met this kid on Xbox live. Lol. Cool kid.

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James Lanaras is our Windsor correspondent.
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