Phil Irwin's body was found in Lake Union
UPDATE: The King County Medical Examiner's Office just ruled Phil Irwin's death a suicide, noting in


Phil Irwin, Found Dead in Lake Union, Likely Circumvented $5 Million Suicide Fence on Aurora Bridge

Phil Irwin, Aurora Bride, suicide fence, impulse, deterrent

Phil Irwin's body was found in Lake Union
UPDATE: The King County Medical Examiner's Office just ruled Phil Irwin's death a suicide, noting in its report that he had "jumped from a height." Because there are no known witnesses and because there are other heights in this city from which to jump and land in water, we may never know with 100 percent certainty that Phil Irwin jumped from the Aurora Bridge. However, according to an investigator with the Medical Examiner's Office, that's the most likely scenario.

Last week, Emily Irwin sent out a notice that her father, a 35-year resident of Queen Anne, had gone missing on June 1. On Saturday, the 61-year-old Phil Irwin's body was found in Lake Union by scuba divers with The Center for Wooden Boats.

On Sunday, Emily Irwin e-mailed myballard.com with the sad news:

"I just wanted to let you know that my father's body was found in Lake Union yesterday by divers from the Wooden Boat Center who were working a regular dive for ship wreckages. It appears that he took his own life by jumping off the Aurora Bridge. Again, thank you for the help in trying to find him. My family is grateful to know where he is and, at the same time, deeply saddened by the reality of the situation."

It is a terrible loss for Ms. Irwin and her family, and for Queen Anne, where Mr. Irwin was something of a community fixture. Full stop.

If Phil Irwin did indeed jump from the Aurora Bridge, it raises two questions about the nearly nine-foot-tall fence, completed in mid-February at a cost of $5 million and designed to prevent people from jumping off the bridge.

First, how did Irwin manage to get over the fence? And, more generally, if someone really wants to jump off a bridge, will even the most impregnable barrier stop him?

On the first question, My Ballard commenter blackhook offers a possible clue:

No satisfaction to say this again, but it appears the designers of the fence did not take into account the existing posts - it looks like it would be easy for someone to step up on the old post & vault over the new fence.


On the second point, we talked to Greg Phipps, a spokesman for Washington state's Department of Transportation, which oversaw the fence construction. Phipps points out that the fence is there to make it harder to jump--to make it harder to act on an impulse--but not to make the bridge suicide-proof. Before the fence was built, he explains, there was no serious physical obstacle stopping a person from jumping over the edge. And indeed, since the bridge was erected in 1932, more than 230 people have leapt from it to their deaths.

Phipps offers the analogy of someone craving an unhealthy food item. If the item is in the fridge, it's easy to satisfy that impulse. On the other hand, if the person has to go to the store to buy the item, the impulse has encountered an obstacle and may not be acted upon.

"We've been very clear in talking about the project as a deterrent," Phipps summarizes. "It would be very difficult if not impossible to build a fence that would completely eliminate the possibility [of someone jumping off the bridge]."

We don't know how many people have not committed suicide, or decided to try another method, because of the fence. We don't even know for certain that Phil Irwin jumped off the Aurora Bridge. (The SPD referred us to the King County Medical Examiner's Office, which said it would put out a statement later this afternoon.) But making it harder to act on impulse does not stop the truly determined. And unfortunately, it seems Phil Irwin was determined.

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