Some ten million people walk across the Golden Gate Bridge every year. On Sunday 24 May, 1987, the pedestrianism got out of hand as far as crowd management was concerned. As part of the fiftieth anniversary celebration of its opening, the Bridge was closed to automobile traffic, and pedestrians were encouraged to walk across the Bridge from either the San Francisco or Marin sides in the early morning hours, to be followed later that morning by a parade of vintage cars: all this reminiscent of the two-day opening ceremonies of May 1937.
The pedestrian walk was scheduled to begin at 6:30 am, but by 5:30 am, the crowds on either side of the Bridge, swollen to unmanageability, spontaneously passed the restraining barriers and began their walk, sweeping along with them the San Francisco and Marin County officials who were supposed to preside at mid-Bridge ceremonies, which were never held. At mid-Bridge the San Francisco and Marin phalanxes met.
Instead of passing each other on either side of the roadway as planned, the two phalanxes ran into each other head on and came to a standstill, and the crowds behind them were brought to a halt in an increasingly impacted environment. By certain later estimates, the gridlocked crowd numbered some 250,000 pedestrians, which translated to a weight of roughly 4,800 pounds per lineal foot, for a total estimated weight of 31,000,000 pounds of humanity on the basis of 125 lbs. per person.
Fortunately, a lighter roadway installed the previous year had increased the capacity of the Bridge to 5,800 pounds per lineal foot over its previous 4,000 pound capacity. Thus the Bridge held, although it flattened out and lost its characteristic arch. Thirty to thirty-five mile per hour winds, meanwhile, were producing a decided sway in the roadbed, unnerving the crowd.
The gridlocked crowd behaved with calm restraint as people waited, many of them for more than three hours, for harried officials to disperse the crowd from the rear and empty the Bridge north and south. So many human beings, pressed together in claustrophobic circumstances, many of them increasingly anxious regarding the swaying roadway, might have panicked and created a catastrophic crush, but this did not occur. On the contrary, with the exception of one or two alcohol-fueled fistfights on the margins of the crowd, not at the center, people behaved beautifully, and a disaster was avoided.
Kevin Starr, author of Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge (Bloomsbury, released today), is one of America’s most celebrated historians. His many books include a magisterial seven-volume history of California (“Monumental.”-Atlantic Monthly). He served as California state librarian, and in 2006 was awarded the National Humanities Medal. He currently teaches at the University of Southern California.
IMAGE: Golden Gate bridge, c 1937
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