A group of Canadian engineering students is taking responsibility for dangling a Volkswagen Bug off the Golden Gate Bridge this morning -- causing a huge commuter tie-up, halting ship traffic under the span and infuriating authorities, who say they will prosecute.
In an intricate scheme that involved laying cable underneath the bridge, the students pushed the body of a red Beetle over the eastern side of the bridge at about 3:40 a.m., then sped off.
Because the Volkswagen was connected to the cable, it came to a rest about 100 feet above the bay, where it remained suspended for more than four hours.
Authorities debated how to extract the Bug from its position, finally deciding to cut the nylon cords that kept it connected to the cable. That plunged the vehicle to the water below at about 8:10 a.m., where it quickly sank.
The California Highway Patrol is investigating reports that the culprits - who witnesses said numbered about 12 - are enrolled at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
"We're pursuing every lead we have," said CHP officer Deven Piazza.
In press releases faxed to San Francisco news media, engineering students from the University of British Columbia said they committed the stunt to "draw attention to the masterful feats of professional engineers and to celebrate the skills of the tradespeople who built the bridges."
The students said the incident also was designed to commemorate the 20th anniversary of a similar prank in Vancouver, where engineering students annually suspend VW Bugs from bridges.
"There's a little bit of a cheer that goes up when you see someone has found a way to put us on the TV and helped raise people's awareness about engineering," Julia Steele, president of the University of British Columbia Engineering Undergraduate Society, said today. "I think we all cheer when students do this."
Two hours before this morning's incident on the Golden Gate Bridge, 12 students from the University of British Columbia's engineering department tried to hang the body of a VW Bug off the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, but tripped a silent alarm on the span, prompting a swift response from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The authorities thwarted the students' stunt. The police in Vancouver are considering filing charges against the students, who were all let go.
Steele said the pranks are carefully planned to avoid causing injury to passers-by or anyone else.
"Part of being an engineer is public safety," she said. "That's the utmost. It's in our code of ethics -- public safety above all else."
Steele laughed as she described past pranks pulled off by students in her department, but in San Francisco this morning, the CHP and the Coast Guard were unsettled by the incident.
As the VW remained suspended, the Coast Guard rerouted ships underneath the bridge, fearing the vehicle would fall.
On the span, onlookers gathered by Vista Point at the northern end of the bridge, and rubberneckers drove past hoping to catch a glimpse of Bug or the contraption that connected the car to the bridge.
Morning fog, however, prevented most people from seeing the dangling vehicle, and authorities stopped people from walking near the railing that overlooked the car.
Traffic was backed up for hours as the CHP investigated and decided how to remove the vehicle.
Mary Currie, spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge, said the perpetrators latched a 90-foot cable underneath the bridge from the eastern side to the western side that faces the ocean. It's unclear when and how the culprits managed to connect the cable.
At about 3:40 a.m., the pranksters drove northbound across the bridge in a moving van, stopped suddenly just past mid-span, ran out to the railing with the frame of the VW Bug, attached the vehicle to the cable, then threw it over before speeding off, authorities concluded from witnesses.
A second cable, connected to the VW, kept the vehicle dangling in the air.
The car had no windows, no wheels and no engine, and appeared to be about 30 years old, Currie said.
"These were people who knew what they were doing," Currie said.
Martin Wedepohl, a retired dean of the University of British Columbia's engineering department, said the students who pull off the yearly VW stunts have never been arrested or named.
"At least four times when I was dean, they (suspended) cars along the side of bridges; I used to get very mad," said Wedepohl, who left the school in 1997. "There was a tendency to think it was funny, but my fear is that would cause an accident."
Wedepohl said his students have never revealed the identities of those who actually participate in the VW pranks. Steele said she has never gotten involved.
"Nope," she said. "In all honesty, I really haven't."
Another bridge prank occurred in 1993, when a disc jockey for radio station KSOL - Manfred "Mancow" Muller - tied up traffic on the Bay Bridge by organizing vans to block all the westbound lanes while his sidekick, Jesus "Chuy'' Gomez, got a haircut.
The stunt was a parody of President Clinton's ill-timed haircut in Air Force One a week earlier, which blocked traffic on a Los Angeles International Airport runway for an hour. Muller was prosecuted and given three years' probation, 100 hours of community service and a $500 fine.
Authorities are considering what type of charges today's bridge pranksters - - if they are ever caught -- would face. According to Currie, the people involved in the incident face potential fines of $10,000. CHP Officer Piazza said those involved could be charged with criminal conspiracy, trespassing and other violations.
Authorities could not estimate how much the prank cost. Asked it the charges could lead to jail time, Piazza said, "Sure."