Saturday, June 27, 2009

Death at the Eiffel Tower

(Updated) Yesterday a 17-year-old French high-school student, who had just taken her “bac” exams, jumped from the second platform of the Eiffel Tower and fell onto the roof of the restaurant on the first platform, fifteen stories below. Needless to say, she was killed—which was her objective (she left a note for friends explaining her feelings). She somehow managed to get past all the security barriers (and there are tons of those on the Eiffel Tower), paused on a girder, and then jumped. Initial reports that she had been a Brazilian tourist were in error.

It didn't receive much press, probably because there are more newsworthy events to worry about, and because there's always the possibility that press coverage might encourage other people who are thinking about suicide.

The weird thing is that she hit the top of the restaurant with a loud crash, everyone was startled and looked around until they realized what had happened … and then they resumed their meals. But I guess it's really not that weird—what else are they supposed to do? Most of them are tourists who may never see the Eiffel Tower again, anyway, so why perturb the trip uselessly? They couldn't do anything to help her. It does give them an interesting trip story to tell, however. It sounds a bit callous, but there aren't really any other practical or useful options.

Although it isn't widely publicized, people jump from the Eiffel Tower regularly. Hundreds have killed themselves that way since it was built. Today, and indeed for many years now, the security systems have been more than adequate to prevent anyone from falling by accident … but there's simply no way to completely prevent a human being from jumping deliberately to commit suicide. Where there's a will, there's a way. And human beings can be very clever, especially when they are desperate.

Most jumpers forget that the tower is tapered, being wider at the base than at the top, and as a result, they hit the structure of the tower on the way down, sometimes being partially diced and sliced in the process. A few have survived. A pregnant woman who wanted to end her days got her foot caught in the girders just after jumping and survived, dangling in midair until she could be rescued. Another woman fell onto the roof of a taxi, bounced, and survived. But in general there are no survivors.

The Eiffel Tower surely has a certain romantic appeal for suicides. Why jump off a nondescript building in an anonymous business district (which is pretty easy to do), when you can jump off the world's most recognized national monument? Some people propose marriage on the Eiffel Tower, and others end their lives there (fortunately the former are many times more common than the latter, even if you don't include Tom Cruise). People who don't want the celebrity of an Eiffel-Tower demise often choose to throw themselves in front of subway trains instead, but that's another story for another day.

Another spot that has been popular in the past for suicides is Notre-Dame Cathedral. It has far fewer areas that are open to the outside, though, and so it has been much easier to secure. As far as I know, nobody has succeeded in jumping from Notre-Dame in several years (but I'm sure it will happen again).