By Thomas Fields-Meyer
September 05, 2005 12:00 PM

You must die.” The voices in Kevin Hines’s head kept repeating the words until, after years of depression, the 18-year-old San Francisco college sophomore could take no more. On Sept. 25,2000—after a night drafting suicide notes—he took a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge. There he paced the pedestrian walkway crying hysterically. “I decided if someone asked what was the matter, I wouldn’t do it,” he recalls. Just one tourist approached—with a request to take her picture. (He obliged.) When she left, Hines set down his backpack full of notes and catapulted over the waist-high pedestrian railing into the air. “The second my body left the ledge,” he says, “I realized, I don’t want to die.”

Miraculously, he didn’t. Hurtling more than 200 feet toward the icy waters of San Francisco Bay, Hines “looked down and thought, I’ve got to get myself feet first.” Seconds before hitting the water, he whispered a prayer, then threw back his head so that his body struck the surface at a 45-degree angle. Hines fought his way to the surface, where the Coast Guard shortly fished him out. As he recuperated from two shattered vertebrae, a ruptured stomach and liver and pneumonia at a local hospital, a priest paid a visit. “You are a miracle,” he told Hines. “Now go out and save lives.”

Now 23, Hines is trying to do just that. Still being treated for bipolar disorder, he has joined with mental health advocates and the families of suicide victims to speak to young people about depression and to campaign for a barrier on the bridge. Officials stopped publicizing figures in 1995, when the number hit 997, but concede the landmark attracts about one jumper every two weeks—making it one of the world’s leading suicide locations. “When people with depression get to an impulsive end stage,” says psychologist Dan Riedenberg, who heads a Minneapolis-based suicide prevention and education group, “the bridge is simply too accessible.” Hines says even a small fence might have changed his mind, and Jenni Olsen, producer of a 2005 documentary about bridge suicides, agrees. “If it is a little more difficult, it would cause people to think,” she says.

Hines has yet to convince the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District. “Adding a barrier sounds easy,” says spokeswoman Mary Currie. “But whenever you make changes to a suspension bridge you risk problems, like destabilizing its wind profile.” Prodded by Hines and others, the agency voted in April to study the matter, but polls of San Franciscans show 50 percent of them oppose any barrier, which may cost up to $25 million to build and could mar their bridge’s beauty. Agency officials point out that the bridge already has phones that connect to suicide hotlines and trained guards to recognize jumpers. “We probably save three or four people,” says Currie, “for every one that jumps.”

How he reached such despair still baffles his parents, Patrick, a banker, and Debbie, a nurse, who say Kevin was a popular student who thrived academically until 10th grade, when he began having mood swings. “All of a sudden,” says Patrick, “he fell off the edge of his earth.” Diagnosed as bipolar, he went on medication, but while attending City College of San Francisco suffered the depression that led him to the bridge that foggy morning. When he regained consciousness, “I was just glad to be alive,” says Hines. “It woke me up from my depression.”

After a lengthy recovery, Hines went back to college, where he’s majoring in theater—and found his mission. Still, he says his own demons are far from banished. Twice since his leap he’s been hospitalized, but now he vows to make the fight against his illness last a lifetime. “I was blessed—I was given a second chance,” he says. “I’m very happy with where I am right now.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Andrea Orr in San Francisco