links could be broken at any time. (our comments follow)
|07.25.15: how an eckerd crew devised a search pattern for rescuing skyway jumpers.|
07.25.15, tampabay.com, ST. PETERSBURG
- The call comes into the students' emergency radio and cell phones.
Someone has jumped from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Vital seconds are eroding. The Eckerd College Search and Rescue team scrambles.
If they get to the base of the bridge before other rescuers, they can employ a special search pattern developed on a whiteboard in their office three years ago. Powering back and forth in expanding parallel sweeps through the choppy waters of Tampa Bay, they are 50 percent more likely to find the jumper than other boats searching with more traditional methods, according to their coordinator, Ryan Dilkey.
"It's saving us fuel, it's saving us time, it's increasing our likelihood of finding a search target," he said.
Dilkey and two others devised the pattern three years ago. The esoteric science of search and rescue, while not particularly sexy, is potentially critical in finding people who jump from the signature Tampa Bay landmark.
More often than not, jumpers do not survive the nearly 200-foot drop from the bridge to the water. They suffer massive body trauma, either dying on impact or drowning after they hit, said William Pellan, director of forensic investigations at the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office. Sometimes the bodies float and are found easily. Sometimes they sink.
Dilkey, 39, estimates that Eckerd responds to about one suicide attempt a month. His team has employed its specialized search pattern for more than two years but has never found someone alive. On Monday, they hauled aboard a 38-year-old woman, severely injured though breathing after a suicide attempt, but two jet skiers had already located her by the time the Eckerd rescuers arrived.
Many factors about the harrowing jumps are similar. When a body hits the water below the Skyway, it begins to drift in a predictable way, outward from the bridge in whichever direction the tide and currents flow. Charts show where it might end up 30, 60 and 90 minutes after the fall — almost always within an easily identifiable cone.
Search boats often trace big, parallel lines of equal length stretching away from the bridge. Dilkey and his team noticed that such searches — which generally extend from pier to pier beneath the Skyway — mean that boats spend significant time outside the drift zone.
Crews following that pattern have about a 10 to 20 percent of passing a body; Eckerd's new model provides a 60 to 70 percent chance, Dilkey said.
It took about half a day to come up with the pattern. Dilkey worked with two other Eckerd graduates, Emily Reichert and M. Cayman Brownfield. After drawing the model, he said, he ran calculations. "I didn't think it was right. I went back and did the math again."
The Eckerd crew spent several days putting dummies into the water, setting them out to drift at strong tides and slack tides. They tracked positions using GPS. It all checked out.
Dilkey said they implemented the new search immediately. Of the next four jumpers, he said, Eckerd searchers found three. A full sweep involves a boat going about 11 mph for roughly an hour and 20 minutes.
They presented their findings to the U.S. Coast Guard and learned that their pattern is nearly a replica of the common course for skimming and containing oil spills. They also showed it to various rescue and law enforcement agencies around Tampa Bay, but not every crew can adopt it, Dilkey said.
Many agencies respond to jumper calls, including sheriff's offices from the three counties around the bay, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Coast Guard. Learning to drive the successively larger lines takes time, and some boats only have one or two rescuers aboard, Dilkey said. Each Eckerd crew has four to five people, allowing some to steer while others search.
Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Rosen said his agency has a modeling program that devises search patterns based on real-time tidal data. He said the Eckerd team is among the best civilian search outfits he's seen in his 22 years with the Coast Guard.
"They're a big reason that Tampa Bay has such good response to not only bridge jumpers but anytime folks are distressed out there," Rosen said.
Eckerd hopes its model has applications across the country. "It's definitely really cool when you have the numbers to back it up," said Jordan Kuperberg, 23, a staff instructor.
Dilkey said he would like officials to test the pattern at the George Washington Bridge in New York and the Golden Gate in San Francisco.
They know, especially with a bridge as high as the Skyway, that improved efficiency might not translate to more saved lives. But just finding a person can provide closure to a family.
"Even when we become certain that it's not a life-saving endeavor," Dilkey said, "there are other lives that are affected by this."
|01.29.15: opinion - Ruth: Suicide prevention nets logical addition to Sunshine Skyway.|
01.29.15, tampabay.com, Daniel Ruth, Times Columnist,
It is one of the oldest public safety axioms: That if doing X, Y or Z will save but only one life, just one, then whatever the proposal, it is still worth the cost and effort to implement.
But apparently that idealistic notion does not apply when aesthetics take precedence over public safety in making it more difficult for people to take their lives by jumping from the Sunshine Skyway.
Each year approximately eight troubled people leap from the Skyway to their deaths 197 feet below. The roadway ranks No. 4 in the nation for bridge suicides. According to the website SkywayBridge.com, since 1954 when the first span opened, 234 people have used it to kill themselves. So far in 2015 one person has chosen the bridge as their last resort.
These aren't just dispassionate statistics. Chances are, most of us have had our lives touched by the suicide of a friend, family member or co-worker and are left to endlessly wonder what might have been if only the victim had been stopped in time, given a second chance at the life they were about to throw away.
Two years ago federal transportation funding became available to provide money to install bridge safety nets to capture potential suicides. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, currently undergoing a renovation, will now include nets. The George Washington Bridge in Seattle has installed a suicide prevention net. But not the Sunshine Skyway.
Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kristin Carson told the Tampa Bay Times' Rachel Crosby the agency is "watching and assessing" what other states are doing. It's just a silly idea, but wouldn't it be refreshing if other states were looking at what Florida was pro-actively doing to save lives? Just one?
A study done several years ago on suicide prevention netting on the Skyway concluded the webbing might actually cause a suicidal person to bounce back onto the roadway into oncoming traffic. And the same study raised questions a suicide prevention net would detract from the Skyway's elegant architectural design.
But the technology has improved. And after all, if the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the nation's most beautiful and truly iconic spans, can accommodate an antisuicide net, why can't the Sunshine Skyway?
Over the years there have been a small number of suicidal people who, incredibly, have survived the jump off the Skyway. There at least 36 known rare survivors of the jump who sustained massive injuries. Invariably many of these people have noted that almost immediately upon stepping off the bridge the thought occurred to them that what they had just done was a really, really bad idea.
It is true the Sunshine Skyway has six crisis hotline phones along its span. And that's a very good thing.
There is no question the installation of a net might not save every person bound and determined to take their lives. But for others, the safety net holds out the promise that what begins as a really, really bad idea need not be a fatal choice, but rather a rescue from their demons. And isn't that one life vastly more important than aesthetics? (comments follow the article. we don't want to be redundant, repetitive, recurrent, and repeat ourselves, but can someone in charge look at the ESR device and maybe tell us why it's not worth a study? they study the mating habits of snails, yet we can't pony up a couple bucks to stop skyway jumpers? bullshit.)
|01.23.15: New funding, technology could prompt suicide barrier for Skyway.|
tampabay.com, By Rachel Crosby, Times Staff Writer
Each year, an average of eight people fall to their deaths from the Sunshine Skyway bridge, which soars up to 197 feet above Tampa Bay. That statistic makes it the deadliest so-called "suicide bridge" east of the Mississippi River.
Already this year, a person has committed suicide from the bridge.
But what if a barrier — such as a wide net in the belly of the bridge — had been in place?
The nation's deadliest suicide bridge, California's Golden Gate, is preparing to install such a net, thanks to newly available federal funds to pay for suicide barriers.
But no such plans are in the works for the Skyway.
"Are we looking at a netting or barrier system at this time?" said Kristin Carson, a spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Transportation. "We are watching and assessing what other states are doing."
Fifteen years ago, Carson said, a study on installing a Skyway suicide barrier was conducted, and the idea was rejected. Engineers questioned whether a net would fling jumpers back onto the bridge and into traffic, and there were concerns about it ensnaring trash and wildlife. Questions were also raised about how a net or barrier would affect the bridge's iconic appearance.
But technology has advanced, Carson said, so another study would be required to make a decision.
About two years ago, President Obama signed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century into law. Among its provisions, the transportation initiative made federal funds available for bridge safety nets.
It's the primary source of funding for the Golden Gate's $76 million installation, which will begin this fall and take about two years to complete.
"We consider it absolutely key in making this project move forward," said Dana Fehler, Golden Gate Bridge spokeswoman. About $49 million of the project cost is coming from the federal government, and the rest is being paid by California mental health grants and the bridge district.
"Those within the suicide-prevention field were ecstatic, if not somewhat frustrated that it's taken so long," said William M. Schmitz Jr., American Association of Suicidology president.
"There's just so much evidence to substantiate the fact that these things save lives," he said of suicide barriers.
"The Sunshine bridge is gorgeous. But I think there's ways to make it safer without greatly detracting from the aesthetics."
Fehler acknowledged aesthetics too, adding that the Golden Gate kept the bridge's beauty in mind when planning the barrier.
"If you're driving or a pedestrian or a cyclist, you'll never know it's there," she said. "It's very low profile."
But the Golden Gate is just more than a mile and a half long, compared to the Skyway's nearly 4-mile stretch. The San Francisco bridge also has no notable incline, while the Skyway rises to a crest and comes down again, making the logistics of a barrier different and potentially more costly.
Seattle's George Washington Memorial Bridge, the nation's second-deadliest for suicides, installed an 8-foot suicide-prevention fence in 2011. The $5 million project has reduced suicides, said Seattle police Detective Drew Fowler. But it's not a perfect solution.
"If someone's, really, really, really determined, they can still get over the fence," Fowler said. "It just makes it very difficult."
San Diego's Coronado Bridge ranks third in the U.S. for suicides, but like the Skyway, it does not have physical barriers in place.
The Skyway relies on 15 cameras that scan different parts of the bridge at all times, linking the feed directly to the traffic management center in Tampa.
The cameras were recently upgraded, but fewer highway patrol deputies are available to respond to any trouble they may detect.
Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said officers used to monitor the bridge at all times, but no longer.
"We only miss a couple hours a day, and that's a funding issue," Gaskins said. "The current schedule has been consistent for at least three years."
The Skyway once was on the cutting edge of suicide prevention, installing six crisis phones on the bridge in 1999. Tampa's Crisis Center fields calls from those phones and offers suicide-prevention services.
"Tools like call boxes and suicide barriers serve as a last line of defense, but they are not the most effective deterrent to suicide," said Kenneth Gibson, Crisis Center spokesman. "We encourage anyone who is having thoughts of suicide to talk to someone about their feelings."
Gibson said those seeking confidential help can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-8255.
"The Skyway has been an issue for a long time," Gaskins said. "I'm not aware of any changes right now, whatsoever."
(comments follow the article. we have been touting the ESR device for quite some time now, yet all we hear about are nets and fences. while we feel nothing would please us more than for this site to be rendered obsolete, we do not understand why the ESR is not at least studied. anyone considering suicide is strongly urged to utilize our help page. more information about the golden gate bridge and it's pending net installation can be found here.)
|10.25.14: college marine rescue team teaches lessons.|
By TAMARA LUSH, Associated Press,
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — When a troubled soul jumps from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge that spans Tampa Bay, the person's slim chance of survival could rest in the hands of 20-year-old Melody Chaplin and her college classmates.
Chaplin is one of about 50 students on the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team. The school and its all-volunteer marine rescue program are approximately six miles by boat from the bridge, which is ranked fourth for suicide jumps in the United States.
Because of the school's location - where the Gulf of Mexico meets Tampa Bay - the group is often the first to respond on suicides. Their four boats are some of the closest to the bridge, closer even than the Coast Guard. The boats are docked just yards from some dorms, and the proximity to the bridge means that they have a chance of rescuing people in need.
When Chaplin and her teammates get a call about a jumper, adrenaline surges and she's out the door. Even if she's in her dorm room, studying for finals. Or watching a movie with her roommate. Or sleeping.
The emotions come later. Staff members hold a debriefing for team members after responding to a tough call.
"I trust everyone on the team," said Meg Evans, a 19-year-old sophomore.
The team was founded in 1971 to provide support for the school's numerous water-based activities. Over the years, the team's mission has expanded to help non-Eckerd mariners and is a Hollywood movie waiting to happen.
Said Aino Pihlava, a 21-year-old junior from Finland: "It made me realize how small some of the problems are that we think are huge."
Love connections have ended in post-graduation marriages. Often entire suites will be made up of EC-SAR members. Most have the same ringtone on their phones — a loud, blaring horn — and know they can call on each other at any time of the day or night.
While the 24-7 team is the only volunteer, college-based marine search and rescue group in the country, there are other college search and rescue teams around the nation. Texas A&M has a center for Robot Assisted Search and Rescue and a handful of schools perform backcountry searches.
Eckerd is also unique for handling many of the routine suicide recovery missions.
According to a website that compiles suicide statistics for the bridge, between five and 12 people commit suicide there annually. Dozens more are listed as possible suicides, and each year there are a few survivors — a near-miracle on a 197 foot bridge — at its center span.
Since 2013, the Eckerd team has found four victims, none alive. Over the years, the team has rescued survivors, but fewer than a dozen. In 2012, the team also came up with a new, nautical search pattern.
Previously, the team would steer their boats parallel to the bridge, up and down the bay. Emily Sandrowicz, a 28-year-old staff member and a former volunteer student, said the team wondered where a body would drift given the tides and currents.
The team stuffed a "mustang suit" — a full-body immersion suit — with weights to approximate an adult's size. They couldn't hurl it over the side of the bridge, but they could put it in the water underneath, with a GPS tracker attached.
They discovered their previous searches "wasted time and space," said Sandrowicz. Depending on the tide, the dummy drifted only to certain places. So they switched their search pattern to more of an expanding cone-shaped configuration and shared their results with the Coast Guard and area fire-rescue teams that also look for jumpers.
Since implementing the new pattern, area rescue teams have found 70 percent of the 14 jumpers since January 2013, Sandrowicz said.
The team also helps stranded boaters, puts out onboard fires and bails out sinking vessels of all shapes and sizes - free of charge, although mariners often give donations to the team after being rescued. Crews are on call for a 24-hour period and then get 48 hours off; the team's three paid, non-student staff members schedule the students around lectures and try not to call the students to an emergency during class.
The students receive no college credit for the extracurricular program, which is funded almost entirely by donations (the team holds a massive yard sale every year, which garners much of the annual budget). A private liberal arts school, Eckerd has about 1,800 students and a good chunk are marine science majors. Some pick the school specifically for the SAR team.
Said Meg Evans, a 19-year-old sophomore who wears a dolphin pendant around her neck: "This team has shown me that I'm a lot stronger than I thought."
|06.29.14: Hooper: Can Sunshine Skyway suicides be curbed?|
tampabay.com, Ernest Hooper, Times Columnist/East Hillsborough Bureau Chief,
The board that oversees San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge voted last week to install a steel safety net to help prevent suicides on the iconic structure.
According to a Yahoo News report, supporters say similar suicide prevention barriers have served as deterrents at other bridges such as the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia. Environmental and financial concerns have been cited for not installing a similar barrier on our Sunshine Skyway Bridge, but the four children of a mother who jumped from the bridge earlier this year might say cost shouldn't be a factor. (let us not forget hanns jones' invention. who needs nets when you can install a simple rail?)
|05.02.11: internet radio documentary about skyway jumpers.|
|06.13.10: article and film on this site.|
|tampabay.com, Filmmaker haunted by Skyway bridge suicide hopes documentary will deter others.|
|05.22.09: Deadly jumps are darker side of Sunshine Skyway bridge|
05.22.09, tbo.com, Suicides at the Sunshine Skyway bridge have fueled a morbid
fascination that has given rise to a new documentary and an irreverent website. By BAIRD HELGESON | The Tampa Tribune
ST. PETERSBURG - The Sunshine Skyway bridge rises gracefully over the water and returns gently to the land, a majestic concrete arch held aloft with golden rays of steel.
Travel magazines and car commercials feature Tampa Bay's breathtaking gateway.
But the span is also one of the region's deadliest stretches of road — because of suicides, not traffic crashes.
More people come here to end their lives than anywhere in Florida, fueling a morbid fascination that has given rise to a new documentary and an irreverent website. (what? irreverent? us? no!)
Steven Picciuto leaped in September, ending a life tangled in addiction and depression.
"He always talked about jumping off that bridge," said his former wife, Alyson.
At least 135 people have jumped from the Sunshine Skyway since the existing bridge opened in 1987. Only three bridges are known to top that: the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Aurora Bridge in Seattle and the San Diego-Coronado Bridge.
About nine people a year jumped from the Sunshine Skyway in the past 10 years, according to data compiled by The Tampa Tribune. Nearly all of them died. As few as four people jumped in 2004, as many as 13 in 1999.
Two people have jumped this year. One died; one survived.
Often, those who choose suicide don't think about the questions and heartache they will leave behind, experts say. People who choose jumping to end their lives are often self-centered and possess a sense of grandeur.
"You are on stage," said Jerald Ratner, a forensic psychiatrist from Cape Coral. "It symbolizes a glorification of suicide. It's an act you want people to notice."
People who jump often imagine an end that is certain, instant and painless. They usually step off the Skyway during the day. They seldom leave a note.
But if they're seeking to wrap themselves in the majesty of the landmark, in a cathartic collision of body and water, in a warm entry to the afterlife, they may face a painful disappointment.
Only the lucky ones die quickly.
Taking preventive measures
The Sunshine Skyway is Florida's highest span, carrying an average of 51,000 vehicles a day nearly 200 feet above the water — or two-thirds the length of a football field — as it links the north and south sides of Tampa Bay.
The new bridge was built after a freighter slammed into a support on the old bridge 29 years ago this month, sending cars and a bus plunging into the shipping channel below. Thirty-five people died.
It was no secret the old bridge was attractive to people bent on suicide. Fifty-five jumped from it between 1958 and 1986, according to Tribune data.
Former Gov. Bob Graham was instrumental in getting the new bridge designed and built. The goal was to make it safer for motorists and maritime vessels, he said.
Graham was not surprised suicides continued when the new bridge opened in April 1987.
"Tall structures including bridges have been an attraction for people in the most extreme mental condition, so it is tragic but not unexpected that the Sunshine Skyway has seen its share of suicides," he said in an e-mail interview.
In 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush asked the state Department of Transportation to consider walls or netting to help prevent people from jumping.
Possible fixes proved unrealistic because of wind resistance and the multimillion-dollar price tag. The nets also raised concerns about entangling rare birds.
Instead, the state opted for round-the-clock patrols and six solar-powered phones wired to a crisis hot line. A special ring alerts counselors to the urgency.
The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay has documented 23 calls from the phones on the bridge since 1999. Every caller was persuaded not to jump, said Jennifer Durgee, a crisis center spokeswoman.
The Sunshine Skyway has no pedestrian walkway or wide area at the top to pull over. A motorist pays a dollar at a toll plaza to drive over the bridge, and to stop safely, must pull into a hazard lane barely wider than a pickup.
A remote video camera would likely catch the illegal stop. A Florida Highway Patrol trooper along the five-mile span would head to the spot, usually arriving within minutes. The Florida Department of Transportation monitors the cameras.
But if no one intervenes in time and the motorist jumps to his death, a quirk in political boundaries creates a logistical issue.
The bridge connects St. Petersburg in Pinellas County and Terra Ceia in Manatee County. The top of the span, however, is in a watery finger of Hillsborough County.
Hillsborough law enforcement and medical examiner's staff are called to investigate most suicides, those where a witness sees the leap from the top of the span.
If there are no witnesses and the body surfaces in Pinellas County, Pinellas takes on the investigation and autopsy. If the body is found in Manatee, authorities there handle it.
Most bodies are recovered.
A documentary, website
Sean Michael Davis was on the bridge hauling a load of furniture to his new home on Snead Island in Palmetto when he saw someone leap from the bridge last year.
His truck crested the span in time to see a human form vanish from the edge of the bridge.
"I couldn't do anything," said Davis, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who also works with Fox TV's "Cops."
He pulled over and called 911.
It had never occurred to him that the bridge might be a prominent place for people to end their lives.
He read what he could find about the bridge and suicides, and decided to make a documentary. He is nearly finished filming. His goal is to prevent suicides. (the documentary has been completed and can be viewed here.)
"I need to show people the pain and the humiliation for their family and loved ones, the mass of human emotion," Davis said.
His research took him to JumperPool.com, a website where visitors are greeted by the sound of a splash. The home page warns of "politically incorrect" material.
Inside the site, visitors find a list of incidents, grisly details from medical examiner reports and the feature that gives the site its name: a chance to guess when the next person will jump. Bonus questions include gender and how long it will take to recover the body.
There is also a forum for comments. For 10 years, the forum has drawn angry critics, some of whom identify themselves as victims' relatives, but also people talking openly about the pain of suicide's aftermath.
One horrific account comes from a man who said he was fishing beneath the Skyway when he saw someone smash into the water 20 yards from his boat. Slowed by anchor problems, the fisherman said, it took him several minutes to reach the spot.
He said he felt guilty he couldn't save the person.
JumperPool.com visitors left messages urging him not to feel responsible.
The founder of the site declined in an e-mail to be interviewed on the record or to identify himself. He said his motive is to spook would-be jumpers by showing the ghastly way in which people die and the devastation inflicted on the loved ones they leave behind. (twice in the past, the print press has twisted our words into sentences of fiction. we understand they generally do not like this site and only desire to shed a harsh light upon us, so we tend to avoid any more of that.)
Similarities and differences
Fifty percent more people die by suicide than by homicide nationwide, a couple thousand of them each year in Florida.
According to the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition, 2,570 Floridians killed themselves in 2007.
Those who choose the Sunshine Skyway are overwhelmingly male and white, generally in their 30s and early 40s.
Distinctions fade from there. Those who jump include professionals and the unemployed, people who are married, single, rich and poor.
In 1993, a 15-year-old boy and his 16-year-old girlfriend made a suicide pact. They took a cab to the top of the bridge, used lipstick to scrawl a message on the concrete and jumped.
Within the past year, a 22-year-old student from Sarasota jumped, reportedly angry that his girlfriend had cheated on him.
The most recent victim, a 91-year-old Tampa man, was depressed about his declining health.
Those who jump often leave hints of their troubles in the cars they leave parked — antidepressants, phone numbers of mental health professionals, cell phones with unread text messages from loved ones.
Once they leap, the next few seconds are sheer acceleration.
Bodies are mangled. Clothes are often ripped off. Skulls are smashed. Bones are crushed. Teeth shattered. The impact of hitting the water at 75 mph causes organs to rip loose, butchered in the rib cage.
The impact after falling nearly 200 feet is like hitting concrete.
For some, though, hitting the water only begins the dying process. They perish from drowning, according to medical examiner records.
Witnesses who have tried to resuscitate jumpers described compressing a chest that gave way like a wet pillow.
Occasionally, someone survives.
Dean Konstantinovic leaped in 1993, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He died last year from pneumonia — 15 years after the jump.
The ripples from Picciuto's jump haven't stopped spreading.
Picciuto, 32, pulled his car into the hazard lane of the bridge about lunchtime one day in September.
Traffic whooshed by. A diary sat by his side.
He stepped from the car and went over the barrier.
He and his wife, Alyson, had been separated about two years.
His addiction to alcohol and drugs had wrung out the last of her patience.
They talked often, and he remained a doting father to their two children.
"His pain is over, but our pain has just started," Alyson said.
"It's like breaking a glass, with a million pieces going everywhere. You can never pick up all the pieces, all the shards."
Editor's note: The names of suicide victims included in this story are used with the permission of their families.
|05.02.08: Last stop: Battling the draw of a suicide bridge|
msnbc.msn.com, Patrol thwarts jumpers at notorious Florida spot, but
program may get cut .
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Working suicide patrol on the towering Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Leif Cardwell rolled up to find the 58-year-old woman with one leg already draped over the short concrete barrier wall. The license plate on the Ford minivan she drove there said: “HPPY NOW.”
Cardwell kept his distance, imploring her to talk to him about her problems and not go through with it. He had thwarted a bridge suicide attempt two months before.
“It’s too late,” she kept saying. She threw down her driver’s license and cell phone and swung her other leg over.
Then she was gone, just like that.
Seconds later came a loud crash when she hit the water. “It was a very windy day, it was noisy, but it was clearly audible...,” recalls the 38-year-old trooper. “It is a violent way to go.”
Despondent souls keep stopping at the peak of the majestic Florida Gulf Coast landmark to kill themselves every year, adding to its reputation as one of the country’s most notorious bridges for jumpers.
It’s a problem that the state has tried to address with 24-hour patrols, surveillance cameras and crisis hot line phones at the top. Now it’s possible that the bridge patrol, which troopers say has saved dozens of lives since it was initiated in 2000, could be cut back as the cash-strapped state government struggles to make ends meet.
Ten people jumped to their deaths at the Skyway last year. But seven others were talked out of it or wrestled away from the edge by one of the troopers who drive back and forth across the 4-mile bridge around the clock specifically for that reason. One night last month, a trooper found a silver Jaguar abandoned by a 22-year-old man whose body was found in the bay; then the following day, the same officer stopped a 39-year-old would-be jumper.
Around 120 people have killed themselves there since the higher, cable-supported version of the Skyway opened in April 1987, carrying traffic across the mouth of Tampa Bay on Interstate 275.
For unknown reasons, the rate started picking up in the mid-1990s, and over the past decade an average of eight people a year have died there, highway patrol and sheriff’s office statistics show.
The worst was 2003: 13 dead, 10 other attempts.
Patrols thwart suicide attempts
Those who fall the roughly 200 feet from the center span of the bridge hit the dark water in less than four seconds, moving at around 75 mph. The impact tears away their clothes, shatters bones, ruptures internal organs. Some hit the rocks.
The vast majority drive less than an hour to get there, paying the $1 toll to get on the bridge. Many leave notes in their cars. Records show them coming at all hours on every day of the week. The most popular day: Sunday.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush asked the Department of Transportation to look into the possibility of installing new barriers or even nets. Those ideas proved unrealistic because of the aerodynamics of the bridge and other factors, but the push resulted in the installation of the six crisis hot line phones and 24-hour patrols.
By being constantly on or around the bridge, troopers have thwarted more than 90 suicide attempts since 2000, the highway patrol says. Regardless, a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman acknowledged that the $330,000-a-year program that pays troopers to work extra duty on the Skyway is being scrutinized as the agency tightens its belt.
The key to saving people, officials say, is being able to get an officer there within minutes after a car stops on the bridge, which is not otherwise accessible to pedestrians.
By then the more resolute have already jumped, some not even bothering to shut off the engine. But many are still sitting in their cars crying when the officer rolls up. Or they’re out, pacing or sitting on the 3 1/2-foot-high wall. If the trooper can get to them, they’re taken into custody for a mental evaluation.
“There are some who aren’t committed to jumping, and those are the ones we can save,” says highway patrol Lt. Harold Frear, who coordinates the bridge detail. “We don’t want them to sit up there long enough to think about it and decide they want to go through with it.”
Trooper Dan Cole worked the detail a couple times a week for around four years and never lost anyone over the side.
“I think I’ve physically grabbed six off the wall, two that had been totally hanging over the wall,” says Cole, who received a commendation for one of the saves.
Why jump off a bridge?
Some believe that nothing short of a barrier or fence will solve the problem for good. That’s been the response in other places.
A barrier is being studied for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, widely regarded as the most popular suicide spot in the world. At least 1,250 people have jumped from the bridge since it opened in 1937.
Construction of an 8-foot fence is expected to begin next year to deter jumpers at Seattle’s Aurora Bridge, where at least 40 people have killed themselves in the past decade. A barrier is also in the works for the Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Suicides were reduced from around 20 a year to zero at Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct after the construction of a barrier in 2003.
Why jump off a bridge? Survivors have cited convenience and the romanticism associated with ending their lives in beautiful locales, floating through space before being enveloped by the water and then darkness.
“They think of transcendental flight through the air and then they’re going to hit the water and drown,” says Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. “This isn’t in their mind that it’s going to be as traumatic a death as it is. It has some magical thinking attached to it.”
“Maybe they think it’s a sure thing,” offers Cardwell, the state trooper. “Maybe for those who don’t want to commit suicide, it’s a way to get attention pretty quickly.”
“I honestly have no idea why,” says Mary McNamara of Sarasota, whose troubled 31-year-old son became the first bridge suicide of 2008 on Feb. 12. His body still hasn’t been found.
A 49-year-old woman who killed herself at the Skyway in August told one of her sisters that she decided to do it after seeing “The Bridge,” a 2006 documentary about jumpers at the Golden Gate Bridge.
'It was a big mistake'
Experts note that once a locale gets a reputation as a suicide spot, it inevitably attracts more people there to do the deed. And the Skyway’s reputation is established.
In 1998, a 100-pound Rottweiler named Shasta went over with her owner, a 44-year-old Lakeland man. The dog survived and became a local media sensation as animal-lovers clamored to adopt her.
A Tampa woman named Katherine Freeman fatally shot her ex-husband and tried to strangle his wife in May 2000. She drove to the bridge and jumped, only to become one of the half dozen or so people who have survived the fall from the center. She recovered and was sentenced to life in prison.
A year later, a St. Petersburg man named Hanns Jones also survived.
The now 42-year-old artist and inventor was despondent over business pressures, heavy drinking and a horrible fight with his wife.
At around 5 p.m. on May 30, 2001, he drove his old red Ford pickup to the top. The John Lennon song, “I’m Losing You,” was playing on the radio on the way. Or maybe it was in his head.
“Right after I jumped I thought it was a big mistake,” he says.
It wasn’t what he expected.
“You just accelerate, accelerate so fast and then it stops,” he says. “But when you stop, you don’t feel like you hit water. You feel like you hit the concrete.”
Despite multiple rib fractures, internal bleeding and a collapsed lung, he was able to swim to the rocks near one of the pylons. He was sitting there naked when rescuers arrived, and then spent weeks in the hospital recovering.
Jones says he’s fine and happy today, and he often wonders why he survived when so many others didn’t. But he understands why they come to jump.
“You get to that point and it seems surreal,” he says. “You just want that unbelievable pain to go away.”
|03.24.05: Bad case of blues found in bay area|
sptimes.com, Sad, but true: A magazine survey ranks Tampa and St.
Petersburg among the most depressed cities,
By SHERRI DAY
TAMPA - Maybe it's the Bucs slump. Or maybe hurricanes have knocked the wind out of our sails. But something's got the Tampa Bay Area down.
Break out the Zoloft. Apparently, that's what your friends and neighbors do, at least those who aren't perched atop the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
In the April issue of Men's Health magazine, St. Petersburg and Tampa rank among the Top 5 most depressed cities in America. The worst of 101? Philadelphia, followed by Detroit and St. Petersburg. Tampa, which trails St. Louis, ranks fifth.
There is a message here.
"Looks like there's probably something here that needs to be addressed," said Matt Marion, Men's Health features editor. "Hopefully, the cities will be willing to do that."
For inspiration, Tampa and St. Petersburg could look to the city that fared best in the magazine's ranking.
And what shining metropolis might that be?
El Paso, Texas, Jersey City, N.J., and Corpus Christi, Texas, were close behind.
"We're all very pleased," said Dr. Jose G. Garcia, a medical psychiatrist in Laredo. "We have been very successful promoting awareness of mental health. Before, people didn't seek mental health services at all. Now it seems not only acceptable, but it is desirable." Texa s has state-funded programs to treat mental illness and a low patient-to-doctor ratio, Men's Health said.
The magazine compiled the list by comparing data on antidepressant sales, suicide rates and the number of days residents reported being depressed.
Sadly, the magazine would not reveal its raw data. But Marion did offer suggestions as to the Bay area's psychological plight.
"One possibility is that you have a lot of people that may be coming to the area, moving away from situations that weren't happy," Marion said. "You have people trying to find a geographic cure."
Men's Health ranks cities each month in its MetroGrades column, tackling topics such as alcohol consumption and toxic wastewater.
Tampa previously ranked 72nd in a MetroGrades survey of "101 Best and Worst Cities for Men" and also got an F for being environmentally "toxic." Both Tampa and St. Petersburg fared poorly in surveys of stress and stupidity.
Maybe that caused the depression.
Granted, bay area pharmacies filled nearly 1.3-million prescriptions for antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft last year, according to a drug sales data firm. And twice as many people die of suicide than homicide in Florida, the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition notes.
But even Oscar Rincones, a supervisor at the Pinellas County suicide help line 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares, finds the bay area rankings hard to believe.
"I heard that and thought that was really odd after living in Seattle," Rincones said.
Likewise for Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Bruce Doras, whose agency patrols the Sunshine Skyway Bridge 24 hours a day, hoping to deter jumpers.
(Philadelphia, he understood. "That makes sense," he said. "I have relatives from Philadelphia.")
Some health care experts cautioned against accepting the magazine's findings.
Men's Health said it used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to which CDC spokeswoman Karen Hunter replied, "We don't have any type of information that would support an article that has rankings like that."
Officials in Philadelphia were naturally skeptical. They've put their own researchers on the case.
"We don't know what to think of it actually," said Paula Butler, spokeswoman for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.
"This came out even before we lost the Super Bowl," she said. "That was the last thing that depressed us as a city."
|10.06.03: Skyway safeguards don't deter jumpers.|
sptimes.com, At least 10 people have jumped already this year, despite
crisis phones and 24-hour patrols. By JAMIE JONES
ST. PETERSBURG - The lonely young blond left church on a windy afternoon and drove to the top of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
Wearing black pumps and a shiny black dress, she climbed onto the ledge and looked at the chilly blue waters 197 feet below. The wind seemed to nudge her. It's time, she thought.
She raised her arms skyward and pushed off the edge. Two boaters watched as she began a swan dive into Tampa Bay.
Halfway down, Dawn Paquin wanted to turn back. "I don't want to die," she thought.
A second later, she slammed into the water. It swallowed her, and then let her go. She broke through the surface, screaming.
* * *
Paquin, a 34-year-old New Port Richey woman, is different from most in that she lived to talk about jumping off the bridge, one of the most popular in the nation for suicides.
Responding to numerous jumpers in 1998-99, officials installed six crisis phones and began a 24-hour patrol, costing taxpayers $956,000.
But the problem isn't going away.
At least 10 people have jumped to their death this year, including three last month. Since 2000, when the new safeguards were fully installed, more than 22 people have scrambled over the concrete wall and plunged into the bay.
An additional 40 people have been talked off the bridge, said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Harold Frear, who supervises the suicide patrol. Some, he said, cannot be deterred.
"The ones who are serious about it, they park the car, go right over and jump," he said. "There ain't no talking."
Some national suicide experts believe nothing short of a fence will work, an idea that has been deemed architecturally unsound for the Skyway.
Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, has advocated a fence around the Golden Gate Bridge, which ranks No. 1 for suicides, with more than 1,000 before officials stopped counting in the mid '90s. But in California, the idea has been dismissed as impractical and aesthetically unpleasing.
"A bunch of dead people," Meyer argues, "is very, very aesthetically unpleasing."
* * *
The original Sunshine Skyway was open for three years before the first jumper arrived.
On Nov. 11, 1957, Doris Ann Reed, a St. Petersburg maid, leaped off the bridge as her husband, a cafeteria bus boy, tugged at her clothes and begged her not to jump.
By 1960, nine people had plunged the 155 feet to their death. The 13th man, Robert E. Morris, a Pinellas Park bookkeeper, left a book in his car before stepping over the edge in 1963. Three poems were marked, including one that read:
I am standing on the threshold of eternity at last, As reckless of the future as I have been of the past: I am void of all ambition, I am dead of every hope: The coil of life is ended; I am letting go the rope.
By 1977, at least 32 people had died from the fall. Six had survived, including 29-year-old William Russell, who later offered this advice:
"There are no problems that can't be ironed out by using a little reason."
In 1980, part of the bridge collapsed after it was hit by a freighter during a rainstorm. Thirty-five people died.
The new Sunshine Skyway opened in April 1987, arcing 4.1 miles across the Tampa Bay, its golden stays shimmering skyward.
Five months later, the first jumper plummeted to his death, hitting the water in roughly 3.5 seconds, at about 75 mph.
To date, at least 127 people have died from the fall.
* * *
For decades, Florida Highway Patrol troopers, who handle the bulk of the suicide calls, have been coaxing people away from the edge.
Lt. Frear thinks their success probably has increased since 2000, when the state began to staff the bridge full time with off-duty troopers - paid time-and-a-half for eight-hour shifts.
The move came after Gov. Jeb Bush asked state transportation officials in 1999 to find a solution to numerous jumpers. They said fences would cost millions and make the bridge less safe in high winds. They also thought nets would entangle seabirds. They opted for the patrols.
"If we weren't out there," Frear said, "there would probably be a lot more jumping."
On patrols, troopers often park at the top of the bridge, lights flashing. They hope jumpers will be deterred by their presence at the highest point.
He says troopers encounter two kinds of jumpers: those who move quickly, and those who linger.
"We have actually talked to people who have jumped while we were talking," Frear said. Lingerers typically can be talked down, he said.
Cpl. R.J. Kraus has encountered 26 people on the bridge during his night patrols since 2000. He has talked down seven. The other 19 jumped.
"It seems a lot more jump on the midnight shift," said Kraus, a 22-year veteran of the agency.
About a year ago, Kraus discovered a woman sitting on the bridge and, with the help of two other troopers, snatched her off the wall. Two weeks later, as Kraus sat on top of the bridge, the woman stopped on the other side. She looked him in the eye before she ran over to the edge and jumped.
"It usually happens pretty fast," Kraus said.
Late Tuesday evening, Kraus sped toward the bridge after hearing that a young woman had abandoned her Toyota 4Runner in the southbound lane. As Kraus drove toward the top, he turned on his spotlight and looked around. Nothing.
Then he saw a woman hiding near an emergency phone. She had teary eyes, and wouldn't tell him what was wrong. Kraus took her to St. Anthony's Hospital for a mental evaluation.
Standing in the windy darkness, the woman tucked safely in his car, Kraus looked relieved.
"It's a good night," he said.
* * *
Along the highest points of the Skyway are six boxes containing emergency telephones that ring in an old bank building in Tampa, home of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
The Skyway lines have a louder ring, signifying they are top priority, said Cragin Mosteller, center spokeswoman. Since the phones were installed in July 1999, for $30,000, 18 people have called for help. None jumped.
"If we didn't have phones up there, we'd have 18 more fatalities," said Debra Harris, director of the center's 211 & Hotline Services Division.
As soon as a call comes in, operators alert the FHP, which can pinpoint their location on one of 15 cameras, installed last year for roughly $1-million. Within minutes, an FHP trooper is heading toward the phone.
But some people, like Paquin, don't pick it up.
"I didn't want to talk," she said. "I didn't want anyone up there."
* * *
For all the deterrents - the troopers, the phones, the cameras - the suicides continue. Some relatives think more should be done.
But Lt. Rod Reder, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which investigates all Skyway suicides, says he's not sure what else could be done.
"These are people who are making a last-ditch attempt to end their own lives," he said. "There's no way for me to speculate what they're thinking or why the numbers are up."
Meyer, of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, said the answer lies in delaying the jumps.
She and others cite a 25-year-old study by Oakland psychologist Richard H. Seiden, who tracked 515 people prevented from committing suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge between 1937 and 1971. Ninety percent did not go on to kill themselves.
Additionally, Meyer thinks jumpers might be deterred if they realized the pain involved.
"It's a rather slow death of multiple fractures," she said. "You bleed to death. It's very horrible."
* * *
Dawn Paquin thought she saw angels as she traveled headfirst toward the water. She thought they were telling her to turn her body around.
She said she flapped her arms like a chicken and righted herself, ensuring that her feet hit the water first. The entry felt as if she were crashing through a wooden deck. Pain splintered through her body. Her dress and shoes were ripped off.
Paquin's bowels ruptured. She broke her back and dislocated both shoulders. Still, she surfaced and screamed for help. A business owner and his teenage son, who witnessed the jump, helped rescue her.
Paquin said loneliness led her to the bridge that day in January 2002. She said she had developed a habit of attaching herself to abusive men, and her boyfriend had beaten her that morning. He took her to church. During the service, Paquin excused herself. She told him she was going to the restroom.
Instead, she walked out into the sunlight. She got into her gray Cutlass Ciera and drove toward the Skyway. Ever since she was a teenager, she has admired the bridge.
As she looked over the edge that day, she didn't know what else to do. Then, the wind came along.
Paquin spent several months recovering at Bayfront Medical Center and then moved in with her mother while her back healed. Her body still bears scars from surgery. Otherwise, she feels fine.
She is making a new start. But she still feels lonely sometimes and tells few people of her fall from the sky. She thinks officials should put a fence around the bridge.
And she feels lucky.
"It was a long way down," she said. "It wasn't like, boom, a car accident. There was time to think. And that's when I turned around."
- Times researchers Kitty Bennett, Mary Mellstrom and Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which contains information from Times files.
|02.12.02: full article|
|12.25.00: Skyway suicide patrol beefed up|
sptimes.com, Two troopers will spend Christmas on the bridge to deter
troubled or depressed people from jumping. By MIKE BRASSFIELD
ST. PETERSBURG -- Two state troopers will spend Christmas on the Sunshine Skyway bridge to keep people from jumping off.
The Florida Highway Patrol recently has been posting a trooper on the bridge every day for suicide-prevention duty, FHP supervisors said.
"It's been going on for a while. It's not something new that just popped up," FHP Lt. T. Hines said Sunday. "We've had one officer out there for quite some time now."
On Sunday, however, the number of troopers posted on the Skyway was doubled. That will continue today.
"Normally it's just one," Hines said.
The Highway Patrol is trying to prevent deaths during the holiday season, when doctors say thoughts of suicide increase among the severely troubled or depressed.
This time of year, society puts a premium on appearing happy, according to Dr. David Shern, dean of the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute in Tampa. People who don't fit that stereotype are confronted with it, and it brings into focus their feelings of hopelessness and isolation.
And the Skyway has the unfortunate reputation of being a magnet for suicides. It's the third-deadliest bridge in the country for suicides, after San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and San Diego's Coronado Bridge.
The number of people who jump to their deaths from the Skyway has been rising: six in 1996, eight in 1997, 12 in 1998 and 12 again last year.
Just after midnight Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving, two St. Petersburg men made a suicide pact and parked on the Skyway's center span.
One of them, 30-year-old Rodney Kibler, had broken up with his girlfriend and was on medication. Kibler jumped to his death -- the sixth person to do so this year.
FHP Cpl. Richard Kraus drove up and stopped the other man, Arthur "Bill" Clark, 28, from doing the same.
"You don't want to do that!" Kraus yelled as Clark swung his legs over the wall. Kraus persuaded Clark to sit in his patrol cruiser and talk instead.
Shortly after taking office last year, Gov. Jeb Bush prodded the state Department of Transportation to look into installing fences or safety nets on the Skyway to cut down on suicides.
But the DOT has ruled out both of those options and is trying a different strategy: putting more state troopers and security cameras on the bridge. New video cameras are to be installed toward the top of the Skyway next year.
|05.05.00: DOT rules out nets or fences for Skyway|
sptimes.com, By MIKE BRASSFIELD, ST. PETERSBURG -- Shortly after taking
office last year, Gov. Jeb Bush prodded the state Department of Transportation
to look into installing fences or safety nets on the Sunshine Skyway bridge to
cut down on suicides.
But the DOT has ruled out both of those options and will try a different strategy: putting more state troopers and security cameras on the bridge.
The agency says fences along the sides of the Skyway would cost millions and could make the bridge less safe in high winds. DOT officials also have doubts about how effective nets below the bridge would be, although not everyone agrees with them.
"We don't know what would happen when somebody fell in the netting," said Marian Pscion, a DOT spokeswoman in Tampa. "Trash could build up there. You could have things trapped in there that could hurt a person. We just don't know."
Instead, the DOT plans to beef up the police presence on the bridge and eventually install new video cameras toward the top. The cameras now on the Skyway "monitor the bridge itself, not people stopping on the bridge," Pscion said.
The cameras to be installed next year would focus on the shoulders where drivers pull over, and would feed live footage to a Florida Highway Patrol station.
"We can have a police officer there in a matter of minutes," Pscion said. Within a couple of months, she said, troopers will patrol the bridge 24 hours a day.
One of the state's most scenic bridges, the Skyway is the third-deadliest bridge in the country for suicides after San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and San Diego's Coronado Bridge.
The number of people who jump to their deaths from the Skyway has been rising: six in 1996, eight in 1997, 12 in 1998 and 12 again last year. Two died last month.
Bush learned of the problem when he visited a Hillsborough County crisis center while running for governor in 1998. He got elected and told the DOT to investigate the idea of putting some kind of safety barrier on the bridge.
The DOT asked the Tallahassee engineering firm that designed the Skyway to study whether fences or nets were feasible.
The engineers said a 17-foot-high fence would prevent people from standing on their cars and jumping over. But it would cost nearly $19-million to build such a fence along the sections of Skyway that are at least 65 feet above the water. And a taller, 28-foot fence would cost $50-million.
The top of the bridge is nearly 200 feet up, with only a 31/2-foot concrete wall along the sides.
The top also sways with the wind. Engineers think a fence would affect the bridge's aerodynamics and make it less safe in high winds, although a more detailed study would be needed to know the full effect.
The DOT has rejected hanging safety nets from the bridge. Engineers figure anyone serious about jumping could crawl to the edge of the net and jump again from there, although they would be lower. Also, the DOT says, the nets could collect trash and become unsafe.
"I don't agree with their decision," said Gulfport Mayor Michael Yakes, a retired DOT safety manager whose sister, Linda Blankenship, jumped from the bridge in 1997. "I don't believe DOT is in a position to decide how effective a net would be. There are examples where netting has worked."
At the very least, Yakes said, nets would be a deterrent.
Justin Sayfie, a spokesman for Bush, said the governor had simply wanted the DOT to study its options. He pointed out that six suicide hotline phones put on the bridge last year have had an effect. Several people have used the phones.
"DOT is still looking for other solutions to make the bridge safer," Sayfie said, "doing so in a way that's a prudent use of taxpayer dollars."
top of page ►feel suicidal?