In fact, Kevin Hines and Ken Baldwin are little more than strangers who happen to share an incredible connection. Both jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge - and survived.
They want you to know the overwhelming emotion they both had the moment their fingertips left the railing.
"The millisecond my legs cleared it, the millisecond of true free fall, instant regret for my actions," said Kevin.
Ken had a startlingly similar experience: "I just vaulted over, and I realized, at that moment, this is the stupidest thing I could have done. Everything could have changed."
Each man had a different journey leading them to the bridge. These are their stories: the mistake they say they made, how they fell, and perhaps, more importantly, how they rose up afterward.
"I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge on Sept. 25, 2000. It was a Monday," recalled Kevin.
He was just 19 years old and suffering from Bipolar Disorder.
"I was hearing voices in my head saying 'I need to die,' getting louder and louder," said Kevin. "I thought I had to go, I thought I was my family's greatest burden, I thought I was useless."
Kevin's father was concerned, but Kevin managed to convince him he was fine. He assured his father that he would see him that night after work.
"He said one of his mantras, 'Kevin, I love you, be careful.' He kissed me on the cheek, and I stepped out of the car," he said. "I remember thinking, as my father drove away, that's the last time I'll ever see someone I love, and of course the last time anybody I love will ever see me."
Kevin dropped his classes at City College of San Francisco and took a bus to the bridge. Sitting in the back row, he cried openly, not hiding his distress.
"I actually had a pact with myself, this is something that many suicidal people do. If one person says 'Are you ok,' 'Is something wrong,' or 'Can I help you?' I was going to tell them everything and beg them to help me," said Kevin.
No one spoke to him. He spent 40 minutes on the bridge, tears still streaming down his face. And then, finally, someone approached him.
"On Aug. 20, 1985, I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, and I survived."
Ken Baldwin was 28 years old and had just started a family. He and his wife lived in Tracey and had an adorable 3-year-old girl. He also says he had deep depression, which he likens to a "black vortex."
"I would wake up saying, 'Ah, I didn't die in my sleep,'" said Ken. "Everything was unfixable. I've got to get out of this life. Every day was the same: it was the blackness, the darkness."
Unbeknownst to his wife, Ken was spiraling downwards. He describes feeling like a burden to his family.
"I started feeling like I was going to help them by dying. I was going to make their lives better. That's the depression talking, that they would be better off without me," said Ken. "I told my wife, 'Hey, I'm going to do a little extra work, I'm going to be home late,' knowing full well that I was not going to live through the day."
He describes hating his job as an architectural drafter. That morning, he didn't go to work. Instead, he kept driving toward San Francisco and pulled up at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Kevin had been waiting for just one person to reach out to him. On the span, a woman came up to him on his left side.
"Blond curly hair, giant sunglasses that didn't fit her face, and a smile. And I thought, she smiled at me, she's going to ask me if I'm ok. I don't have to die today. I'm 19, and I don't have to die," said Kevin. "That's when she pulled out a camera and said 'Will you take my picture?' And I was crushed."
He took the picture and returned her camera. She walked away. Within moments, he jumped from the bridge.
"It was a split-second decision, my thought was, 'Absolutely nobody cares. Nobody.' I took these hands, and I catapulted into freefall," said Kevin.
It only took about four seconds for Kevin to hit the water, and he says it felt exactly that fast. But he remembers his few, fleeting thoughts and a flood of emotion.
"Instant regret, powerful, overwhelming. As I fell, all I wanted to do was reach back to the rail, but it was gone," said Kevin. "The thoughts in those four seconds, it was 'What have I just done? I don't want to die. God please save me.' Boom."
He fell about 223 feet and hit the water in a seated position, likely at 75 miles per hour. He says he had never felt such pain. Disoriented under the water, he couldn't tell which was up or down. His back was broken; he found out later how severe his injuries were.
"I shattered my T12, L1 and L2 lower vertebrae upon impact," said Kevin. "I missed severing my spinal cord by two millimeters."
Moments before, he had been determined to die. Suddenly, he found himself desperate to live. In blinding pain, he tried to swim upwards.
"I remember thinking very clearly, 'Kevin you can't die here, if you die here, no one will ever know that you didn't want to. No one will ever know that you knew you made a mistake.' And I broke the surface.'"
Kevin would be pulled from the water by a Coast Guard crew and Officer Marcus Butler. We tracked Butler down, now living in the Houston area. Years later, he still has nightmares about pulling bodies from the water beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
"The human psyche isn't meant to see bodies in the condition we saw them in," said Butler. "When these people jump, they don't hit the water and go peacefully into the night. I don't think people realize that. Sometimes the bodies are things you'd see on a horror show."
In his four years serving at U.S. Coast Guard Station Golden Gate, he pulled 57 bodies from the water - and just one live man. He believes that many of the people do not die on impact and that it's an agonizing way to go. He has not been able to shake those body recovery missions.
The day he found Kevin is one that he'll never forget.
"He's swimming! And all of us were like, what? He's swimming! And a light switch goes off and this goes from a body recovery to a rescue," said Butler. "It was just a miracle."
Unlike Kevin, once on the bridge, Ken went to great lengths to appear inconspicuous. He was emotionless, his face impassive. He didn't want anyone to know what he was about to do. Internally, he said, he was terrified.
"I walked out onto the bridge, and I was really scared. I was scared that I wasn't making the right choice. I was scared it was going to hurt. But I said, 'You got to go. You can't survive this anymore."
He remembers putting his hands on the railing and looking out toward San Francisco. He counted to 10, he said, and couldn't do it.
"I looked to make sure nobody was near me. I counted again, and jumped."
That was the moment he realized everything that overwhelmed him about his job, his life and his circumstances were completely fixable.
"I saw my hands leave the bridge," he recalled. "I knew at that moment, that I really, really messed up. Everything could have been better, I could change things. And I was falling. I couldn't change that."
It's estimated that more than 1,600 people have made the decision to leap into the water below. He says that as he fell those four seconds, his saw the faces of the people he loved and didn't want to leave behind.
"It was like your life flashing before your eyes, except it was my current life. It was everybody I was going to hurt: my wife, my daughter, my mom, my dad, my three brothers," said Ken. "I've never felt anything like it, that profound sadness."
He remembers coming to in the water with a fierce will to live.
"I realized at the time, the irony of living through the jump and that I was probably going to drown," said Ken. "When I wanted to live the most, I was probably going to die."
He suffered a collapsed lung, and doctors noted a bruising pattern that led them to believe he hit the water in a cannonball. He spent seven minutes struggling to keep himself alive in the water before the Coast Guard pulled him from the bay.
'Something in the Water'
Like Ken, Kevin was rescued by the Coast Guard and brought aboard. His clothes were cut off as they assessed his injuries and asked if he knew what he had just done.
But Kevin wants you to know that he believes this isn't the full story of how he survived.
Before the Coast Guard arrived, he had managed to reach the surface but was struggling to stay afloat. He realized he was drowning.
"I couldn't breathe, and I kept going down," said Kevin. "Every time I went down, I'd go down further, and then I'd have to swim back up, spit out salt water, go back down, spit out salt water, go back down. I couldn't even yell. I tried to scream, my lungs were impacted. I couldn't do it."
Kevin doesn't think he was alone in the water that day.
"Something began circling beneath me, and I mean something very large, very slimy and very alive. And I'm freaking out, and I'm thinking 'You've got to be kidding me, I didn't die jumping off that stupid bridge, and a shark is going to eat me?'"
In that moment, Kevin couldn't be clear on what was happening. But he believes whatever it was saved his life.
"I realized I'm not trying to stay afloat," said Kevin. "I'm now lying on my back, being kept buoyant by this thing,"
Someone else saw what happened from above, standing on the pedestrian walkway looking down, he said. Kevin would later recount this story in an interview. Afterward, he received a letter.
"Kevin, I'm so very glad you're alive," it read. "I was standing less than two feet from you when you jumped. Until this day, no one had told me whether you lived or died. By the way, it wasn't a shark. There was a sea lion and the people above looking down believed it to be keeping you afloat."
We reached out to the man who wrote the letter. He confirmed over the phone that he believes he saw a sea lion circling Kevin.
VIDEO: Kevin Hines recounts tale of how he believes life was saved
We asked Officer Butler if he saw anything on the day that the Coast Guard rescued Kevin. He says he never saw an animal in the water. But, he did say, a second witness came down to the station after the rescue to tell them that a sea lion had helped Kevin.
"It helps make sense of how he was able to stay above water. If I remember correctly, Kevin was wearing long-sleeve clothes, pants and boots. You can't swim through that kind of stuff."
We took this story to an expert.
Christina Slager is the Director of Animal Care and Exhibitry at the Aquarium of the Bay. She had another theory entirely.
"It's in the realm of possibility for a seal or sea lion to do this, but it's very, very unlikely," said Slager. "I think it would be very easy to mistake a dolphin or a porpoise for a seal or a sea lion ... especially at a height like that."
Slager points out that there is anecdotal evidence that dolphins and porpoises have done similar things in the past.
"The stories about them aiding humans go back to Roman and Greek times, and a lot of surfers, sailors and swimmers believe that they were saved, particularly from sharks, by dolphins," she said.
Kevin can't be certain what it was that saved him, but he believes without it, he would have died.
'What I Lived For'
Ken made changes after he survived. He calls his wife the hero of this story and says he began truly hearing her when she says she loves him.
"She'll just say the same thing she said before the jump, but I believe her now, and I believe I can fix things. I can work on this," said Ken. "Before the jump I was really scared to open up to her because I wasn't sure how she was going to react... Now I know what her reaction is going to be when I say, 'Wow, that was a really hard day.' It's going to be love."
Those hard days haven't gone away. Ken says he still lives with the specter of depression and anxiety. It wasn't until eight years ago that he found a kind of freedom when he realized he would never be completely "cured."
"I realized 'oh, this is my life.,'" he said. "This is how I'm going to go through the rest of my life. The depression is never going away, you can only stave it off. You can help yourself. You can have tools to be able to work with it. And that freed me up."
He is bowled over by gratitude when he looks at his life now. He quit the job he hated and has been a high school teacher for 25 years, a position that he loves with a passion. His daughter grew up and attended the high school where he taught. He got to present her with her diploma on graduation day.
Years after that, he walked her down the aisle.
"I got to give my daughter away," he said. "She's had two kids, so I have two grandkids. I wouldn't have been here for the birth of my first grandchild, Zachary."
We asked Ken if he could go back to the bridge on that day and talk to his 28-year-old self, what would he say?
"Find a loved one, and believe them when they say that you're worth it," said Ken. "Every single day, I go, 'I get to do this!' And when it's a bad day, I go, 'ok I can get through this.'"
Walking on the bridge years later, Kevin vividly remembers what it was like to be that 19-year-old kid who felt he was worthless.
"I wish I said to my father that morning, 'Am I a burden to you?' Because he would have said, 'No.' I wish I said to my dad, 'I'm thinking about suicide,' because he would have said, 'I'm not letting you go.'"
Kevin says he's learned to manage his mental health with medication. This is what he wishes he knew then that he knows now:
"Today is not tomorrow. Just because you're in this kind of pain right now, doesn't mean it's going to be forever."
Kevin has found his greatest support system in his wife. He thinks about the blessing of living to see his wedding day.
"I would have missed marrying the love of my life, Margaret, my gift from God," he said. "I would have missed my father being my best man."
Kevin has dedicated his life to making sure others don't make the same mistake he did by becoming a motivational speaker and activist.
He was passionate about pushing for a suicide barrier to go up at the Golden Gate Bridge, of which construction has just begun. It was a victory when a date for completion was set for early 2021.
But, he said, more needs to be done.
"It's not enough for politicians to come out and say 'Oh, we made it happen,'" said Kevin. "If we don't close the walkway or, at the very least, we don't up security so there is (someone) saying to the person who is all by himself, 'Hey are you ok?'... we're not doing our jobs."
In sharing his story, Kevin believes it's important to note that, for him, the struggle is still there. There are dark days when he still thinks about taking his own life. The difference though, is the way he reaches out for support, talks to his wife and works through it.
"I get to be here every day," he said. "That's a gift I will cherish for the rest of my life. Even though I live with chronic suicidal thoughts, I will never die by suicide."
If you need support, please reach out for help:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
- Text CNQR TO 741741
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