HOPPERS HANDS - Who is Hopper?

CHANCES ARE YOU'RE HERE BECAUSE YOU ARE CURIOUS ABOUT THE HOPPERS HANDS SIGN ON THE FENCE AT FORT POINT UNDER THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE IN SAN FRANCISCO'S PRESIDIO. WHO WAS OR IS HOPPER? WHY ARE HOPPER'S HANDS THERE? READ ON BELOW...

Sunday

Who is Hopper and why are his hands

at Fort Point?


Each year tens of thousands of San Franciscans go running or strolling along San Francisco's waterfront at beautiful Crissy Field. This westward journey inevitably ends at the chain link fence next to historic Fort Point, just beneath the majestic Golden Gate Bridge.

Each day hundreds of us arrive at this turnaround point, and, before turning back, instinctively touch the metal "Hopper's Hands" plate on the chainlink fence. Why wouldn't you? Everyone does... But like yourself, I have wondered, Who Is Hopper?... and why are his hands immortalized at Fort Point? Well, after much internet research, I was moved to finally discover just who Hopper is:

HOPPER IS A TRUE SAN FRANCISCO HERO. HE IS ONE OF THE MANY GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE'S IRON WORKERS THAT NOT ONLY RISK LIFE AND LIMB EACH DAY MAINTAINING THE WORLD'S MOST BEAUTIFUL BRIDGE, BUT VOLUNTEER TO
SAVE THE LIVES OF LOST SOULS ATTEMPTING TO END THEIR LIVES BY JUMPING OFF THE BRIDGE.

Below is the moving text of a San Francisco Chronicle article by Scott Ostler that explains the genesis of the "Hoppers Hands" sign and details the heroic, on-call volunteer suicide prevention work that these iron workers perform, simply because they feel it is the right thing to do:

SAVING LIVES JUST PART OF THE JOB - Scott Osltler, San Francisco Chronicle, January 10, 2001

"If you're an ironworker on the Golden Gate Bridge and your home phone rings at 3 a.m., you know it's trouble.

You know someone is threatening to jump off your bridge. Your stuff is always ready; you're out the door in minutes.

If you aren't too late, if you climb out onto the cold steel and sweet-talk some poor lost soul off the beam or tower or manage to wrestle him or her to safety, it's a good feeling. Many suicide attempts are impulsive; lives can be salvaged.


If you fail, if the person jumps into that bottomless fog, it ruins your day.


"There's no describing how helpless you feel," says Ken Hopper, a Golden Gate Bridge ironworker for 17 years.


These ironworkers are tough guys. Men of Steel, they're called. Cowboys in the Sky. They fix and maintain the world's most amazing Tinkertoy.


But what qualifies these blue-collar rivet-wrestlers to perform the delicate psychological task of suicide prevention? Just this: There's nobody else.

"We're the only ones dumb enough to do it," Hopper says.

They're the only ones with enough equipment, knowledge of the bridge and courage to go over the rail.

The suicide rescue duty is voluntary, but the bridge's ironworkers all take their turns. There's almost no danger of falling, but it's not a risk-free gig. One man pulled a knife on an ironworker. A loaded gun fell out of the pocket of another guy. An ironworker was bitten by a woman he pulled off the bridge.

But the iron cowboys answer the call, late at night or during their shift. At least two of them go out on every rescue. They give it their best shot, and the weird thing is that they wind up being pretty damn good at the psychological stuff.

Sometimes a police psychologist will be at the scene, coaching the ironworkers by radio. More often, the rescuers are on their own. I asked Hopper if the workers are given any suicide prevention training.

"Over the years, (suicide prevention experts) have come to give us seminars, " he says. "They wind up asking us questions, because all they do is talk to these (suicidal people) on the phone. We deal with them face to face."

Often a would-be jumper is locked into a private mental zone and the trick is to get his or her attention. Some tricks that have worked:

"Hey, if you're going to jump, at least give me your mom's phone number so I can call her to tell her."
"That's a nice watch. If you're going to jump, can I have it?"

Sometimes the trick is simple compassion, the voice of a human who cares. Look, I've been through some real hard times myself. I know it's possible to get help.

Hopper estimates he has talked or wrestled down about 30 people, and lost two.

Great percentage, but even so, it all caught up with him a few years ago. Hopper underwent a couple years of therapy, had his name removed from the rescue-call list.

"It wasn't one incident," he says, "it was a culmination. I tried to stuff 'em all in this bag. The bag gets so big, it bursts."

Hopper is a bear of a guy with a bushy mustache and a sensitive side. When he noticed that waterfront joggers have a ritual of touching the fence at the dead-end of the sidewalk next to Fort Point, he had the bridge's sign painter make a sign with two handprints on it, and another sign with two dog paws, because one woman had her dog touch the fence.

So losses haunt him. Once Ken and two other ironworkers were clinging to one arm of a man hanging over the rail. The man grabbed another piece of bridge with his other arm, wrenched free and swung off another beam and into the world's most popular suicide pit.

Another time, Hopper arrived at a rescue just in time to see a man fling his 2-year-old daughter off the bridge, then jump off himself.

It eats at Hopper when a talked-down suicide is taken into custody and then quickly released with little or no psychiatric observation. Hopper talked an 18-year-old City College student off the bridge, and she was taken away by police.

The next morning, while a press conference was being held at City Hall to announce a new bridge suicide-prevention program, the teenager walked back onto the bridge and jumped.

On occasion, the family of a jumper will later seek out the ironworkers involved in the attempted rescue. What happened? What were my son's last words?

"You try to help them get some peace of mind," Hopper says.

But what about peace of mind for the ironworkers? They almost never get info on what happens to the people they rescue.

Hopper says that's a sore spot. No follow-up, no closure. You help save a life, you become involved in that life, you know?

"Once in a great while," Hopper says, "one of the guys will get a letter or note from someone they talked down. I've known that to happen only two or three times. When a guy gets a letter like that, it's a treasure; it's like gold."

Mostly, the ironworkers don't talk or philosophize or complain about this aspect of their job. They don't talk feelings. They're tough guys.

As soon as Hopper completed his therapy, as soon as he felt like he had a handle, he put his name back on the call list for rescues."

- "Saving Lives Just Part of the Job", Scott Ostler, San Francisco Chronicle, January 10, 2001
______________________________________________________


I HAVE NEVER KNOWN ANY OF THE BRIDGE'S IRONWORKERS, BUT I WOULD LIKE TO THANK THEM FOR THEIR HEROISM AND HUMANITY. TOUCHING HOPPER'S HANDS WILL NOW ALWAYS BE MEANINGFUL TO ALL OF US.
________________________________________________________________

...A poignantly mythical Herb Caen quote:

"There is no way to give up San Francisco, once you have fallen under its spell. You keep looking for the magic, and now and then, when the wind and the light are right, and the air smells ocean-clean, and a white ship is emerging from the Golden Gate mist into the Bay, and the towers are reflecting the sun's last rays - at moments like that you turn to the ghosts and ask, "Was this the way it was?" and there is never an answer..."

6 Comments:

  • At 4:03 PM, Blogger Gilbert Koh said…

    That was interesting. I wish I'd known about this sign when I was visiting San Francisco years ago. I'd have liked to have seen it for myself.

     
  • At 7:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Outstanding piece. I am a second generation Ironworker, & proud of it. My father, his friends & co-workers, many of which originally worked on the GG Bridge, gave many stories, and a lot of the same information/experiences. I remember 377, historical & hysterical moments, & hangin' iron in San Francisco with the gang. Keep up the good work.

     
  • At 1:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Wow. Like everyone else, Ive been touching that "Hoppers Hands" sign for years. When my wife and I came home today, we finally remembered to Google it to see if it was about something. How moved we were to know the sign's meaning. Thank you and thank you to the bridges iron workers.

     
  • At 10:28 AM, Blogger ScottyFerguson said…

    Thank you for explaining they mystery of Hoppers Hands. The big mystery for me is now Hoppers Paws mounted on the K-Rail just below Hoppers Hands.

     
  • At 1:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Rubes - Thanks for enlightening us on this you SF history buff. See you at the Bigfoot, foo. -James

     
  • At 4:51 PM, Blogger Mark Glenesk said…

    Well I visited SF today(12/28/2009) on Holiday. I ran from Fishermans' Wharf to the GG. I was happy, but not surprised, to see a monument to "The Turnaround" aka "End of the Trail". Got back to the hotel and Googled to get the details. It might be nice to have a picture of Hopper, information to suicide hotlines, and Ironworkers history upon the bridge links on this site.

     

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