SAN FRANCISCO — Blame Canada.
Engineering students at the University of British Columbia said Monday they were responsible for tethering the shell of an old Volkswagen Beetle to the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge and then tossing it over the side.
The stunt backed up rush-hour traffic as gawkers slowed to look at the dangling car.
“It’s Engineering Week at the university,” said Chad Brown, 22, a senior mechanical engineering student, in a telephone interview. “The whole premise was to increase interest in engineering, specifically in engineering at the University of British Columbia.”
The car was cut loose at about 8:10 a.m. by the Golden Gate Bridge District, and it quickly sank as U.S. Coast Guard crews kept the area under the bridge clear.
Mary Currie, a spokeswoman for the Bridge District, said two workers crawled underneath the roadway and cut the webbing supporting the car with a knife.
“The cable was attached to 2-inch-wide nylon webbing” at two points under the bridge roadway, said Currie, who added that the car “sank like a rock” after it was cut loose.
The distance from the roadway to the water is approximately 220 feet, and the car dangled approximately 100 feet above the water.
With the sounds of a party in the background as he was being interviewed, Brown said about a dozen people took part in the early-morning stunt.
He said they carefully worked out the project so the bridge would not be damaged and the car wouldn’t injure anyone on the water.
“Every year the engineering undergrads have a thing they call E Week,” said Bruce Dunwoody, associate dean for engineering student services at the university.
“During E Week, often there have been VW Beetles hanging from various places in Vancouver, bridges, buildings.”
Dunwoody said it was possible the university would take some action against the students, if they could be identified.
The stunt marked the 20th anniversary of a similar incident on the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Why the Golden Gate Bridge?
“The more international the stunt, the better the press coverage,” Brown said.
As the sun rose, a blurry televised view of the shell of the old-style red VW could be seen dangling from cables. Witnesses said an “E” and a Canadian flag were painted on the side.
But if the pranksters were looking for publicity, they picked a bad day. The entire time the car dangled from the bridge, the scene was shrouded in thick fog.
Witnesses told the California Highway Patrol they saw a truck stop on the bridge at about 3:30 a.m. About a dozen people jumped out, attached the cables and threw the car over the side before jumping back in the truck and driving off, the witnesses said.
The car was attached on the northbound, non-commute side, but southbound drivers watching the activity slowed traffic heading for San Francisco.
Currie said the Highway Patrol will lead the investigation into the prank, which could be punishable by fines and community service penalties.
The penalties for such pranks increased following a 1996 episode in which actor Woody Harrelson and several other activists climbed one of the bridge’s cables to protest forest logging.
Brown wouldn’t identify the group involved or say when they were expected back.
“They still have to get across the border, you know,” he said.