'Skyway Down' - by Sean Michael Davis
documentary about 'Skyway Bridge' suicide jumpers.
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tampabay.com, Filmmaker haunted
by Sunshine Skyway bridge suicide hopes documentary will deter
others, By Katie Sanders, Times Staff Writer, ST.
Sean Michael Davis was hauling his life across the Sunshine Skyway bridge that November (correction: december 4, 2008) afternoon, almost two years ago. He was moving to a new home in Palmetto, his box truck stuffed with furniture. He admired the way the sun hit the water and thought about what lay ahead.
He saw her (Lisa Koester) on the second trip: a young woman in her 20s with shoulder-length dirty blond hair and green velour pants. She parked her silver car on the northbound crest. Davis, 41, slowed his truck.
He watched the next 10 seconds unfold from his southbound lane. He tried calling 911 but could not get through to the right dispatcher.
There would be no time for an intervention.
The young woman walked straight to the wall, hiked her leg over the berm and was gone. No hesitation. No intervention. Gone.
Davis is a filmmaker. He has filmed shootings, stabbings and unthinkable violence in the past two years for the TV show COPS.
But that afternoon, there was no lens to give Davis distance. He was just another driver who didn't expect death to unfold outside his window.
The jump haunted Davis. It would have been impossible to pull her from the ledge. She was too fast, and he was too far away.
Still, he wished he could have done something. Why did he know her fate before her family?
The scene played over and over again in his head.
"It just hit me," he said. "I'm a filmmaker. I have time to do something good about this."
Skyway Down is his unfinished film.
His documentary-style side project is more of a plea to potential jumpers than an impartial account of the bridge's suicidal lore. The Skyway ranks fourth among suicide jumps from American bridges.
He wants people who have mulled a leap to know about the bloody, battered aftermath. He wants to "punch them in the face" with interviews from survivors and family members, including Hanns Jones, a survivor who has invented a metal guard that would sit on the bridge's wall and shock people who pulled on it.
These faces will explain how a jump isn't peaceful, or even a sure thing. How it resonates with strangers like him years later.
"After watching someone jump and now knowing what I know about the whole process, you're constantly wondering, 'Is there a car out there?' "
Once the not-for-profit film is wrapped he's aiming for this winter, if not sooner Davis wants to distribute it to suicide-prevention centers. If festivals and other venues want to pick it up, that's great, too, but he's not in it for the money.
He doesn't just want his work to be a message for potential Skyway jumpers; he envisions it as a therapy tool for anyone who has considered taking his or her life.
David Braughton, chief executive of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, said he hasn't been approached to use the film. Nor has he heard about it.
That doesn't mean it is out of the question for training and counseling purposes. Braughton wants to see the number of confirmed suicides in Hillsborough County at 188 in 2008 dwindle.
"There certainly is a need for video that challenges any kind of romantic notion of suicide, challenges suicide as any kind of solution to life's problems," he said. "Because it's not. It's an extremely selfish act."
Count Scott Crowell among people who hope Skyway Down will bring a change.
He's part of St. Petersburg Fire Rescue's marine unit, a team that scours water and rocks for remains after a jump. Crowell's team took Davis out on the water a couple of months back, giving Davis an up-close look at their rescue operation.
Fire Station 11 looks for Skyway jumpers about once a month, Crowell said. He has rescued two survivors in 11 years.
In short, Crowell has seen a lot. He would prefer to see less. "Maybe they'll think twice about it," he said.
Though rescuers may be eager to help, it hasn't been easy for everyone to open up.
Some potential sources are wary after watching The Bridge, a documentary about suicides from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Davis insists Skyway Down will be nothing like that film, which includes footage of jumps that Davis finds tactless.
"The Bridge is my nemesis," he said.
The Coast Guard declined an interview. Davis has no hard feelings.
"People have mixed emotions," Davis said, "and I understand that."
Davis has been a husband for 14 years and a father for 2 1/2.
Lara Davis, 42, remembers her husband's daze that November 2008 afternoon. She remembers listening to him as he worked through his disbelief.
Days later, Skyway Down a working title she contributed was born.
The lab analyst keeps her hands off of artistic control, but sometimes she talks about the project as a team ambition: "We want to make sure people know we're not trying to glorify people jumping off the Skyway."
Sean Davis admits he will probably never know if his film stops someone from taking the 197-foot leap. But he has to try. If Skyway Down helps one person, all the time will be worthwhile. Even if that person is just him.
"I don't know if I'll save a life," Davis said, "but I know I'll finish the film."
Trips from his Palmetto home to Rhino Productions, a film and recording studio he runs in St. Petersburg, take him across the bridge twice a day.
For a while, memories of the woman whom Davis couldn't save lingered as he drove past the spot. These days the reminders come once in a while. He has thought about it so much that the average day's commute passes without an emotional toll.
Recent suicides weighed on his mind. Two Skyway jumpers in as many days. The chaotic rescue attempts gave him great video footage sirens blaring, marine team searching, fire trucks rushing. Rescuers couldn't find one of the bodies.
But what if he had finished the film? Could he have changed their minds?
"Two jumpers in two days," Davis said, "makes me want to get this done now."
[KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times photo]
06.14.10, Letter from Crisis Center CEO David Braughton is in response to the St. Pete Times article on Sunday, June 13, 2010 (above):
Filmmaker haunted by Sunshine Skyway bridge suicide hopes documentary will deter others. Letter to the Editor St. Petersburg Times Monday, June 14, 2010 About 35,000 people in the United States will tragically die by their own hands this year, making suicide the eleventh leading cause of death in America. Its estimated there are another 750,000 living Americans who have unsuccessfully attempted to take their own lives. In 2007, Florida was ranked 17th among U.S. states for suicide rate but was second only to California in the sheer number of fatalities by suicide. Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties each reported more suicides than ever last year and these are only those that are completed and confirmed as suicide by a Medical Examiner.
Most people are surprised and dismayed to learn that Hillsborough County at 199 deaths in 2009 has the highest number of suicides in Florida. There are nearly three times as many suicides in the county than homicides. White men between the ages of forty and fifty-five are the most frequent victims; however, a tragic number of younger lives are claimed as well. Social isolation, poor economic conditions, substance abuse and a history of significant mental health problems are important contributors of suicide risk. A highly significant predictor of a suicide attempts is that of a prior suicide attempt. Indeed, many of those who are prevented from completing the act will try again.
On Sunday, June 13, 2010, the St. Petersburg Times published a generally excellent story, written by Staff Writer Katie Sanders, about filmmaker Sean Michael Davis, who is engaged in creating a film about suicide at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. I was contacted by the reporter to give comment about the story and, sadly, the printed words did not match those I shared. I was quoted as suggesting that suicide is an extremely selfish act. As someone who has had five friends die by their own hands and who has worked with many others who have attempted suicide, I know this simply isnt true.
The social myth of the self-centered suicide victim has developed as a crude explanation of something very difficult for most of us to comprehend how a human being can completely override the instinct for self-preservation to harm themselves. But this short-sighted characterization marginalizes the true pain that victims experience and the isolation in which they suffer. Dr. Thomas Joiner, a Clinical Psychologist, researcher and suicide prevention expert at Florida State University, explains that victims are often guided to action by the belief that they are a burden to others that the act of suicide itself is perceived often as the most selfless gesture of their life, relieving others of their presence and the effort it required.
As the President of an organization whose mission is to intervene in crisis situations and provide help, hope and healing, I am deeply troubled by the number of suicides in our community and particularly by the remarkable growth of this number in recent years. Thats why the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay is in the process of developing a Suicide Prevention Plan for our community and will soon be assembling a Task Force to develop and implement innovative local suicide prevention strategies. We have combed through years of research, analyzed medical examiners data, reviewed news archives and retrieved police reports. We also rely on many years of very direct experience.
As the operator of our local 2-1-1 crisis hotline, the Crisis Center responds to crisis calls. About 5,000 of the 120,000 calls we received last year were from men, women or children who were considering suicide. In none of these cases that we are aware of did the caller go on to complete their grisly plan they began planning for life instead of death. Nevertheless, almost 200 confirmed suicides were reported in Hillsborough County last year. As far as the Crisis Center is concerned, thats 200 too many preventable deaths.
My hope is that the article about Sean Davis film and the film itself, along with this letter, will encourage more people in our community to give thought to this tragic problem. Anyone interested in getting engaged in a campaign to help us prevent this tragedy from claiming more lives still can send me an email at dbraughton(at)crisiscenter.com. We need your help.
Sincerely, W. David Braughton President and CEO Crisis Center of Tampa Bay
pre-production interview: Terri S., Ruskin, Fl., I am a surviving family member of a recent jumper and I decided to take part in the independent film that is mentioned on this website. I contacted the film-maker through this website and he responded back to me, we set up a time to meet. He came to my home and setup some equipment and allowed me to tell my story. He was very professional and very concerned about the issue of people jumping off the skyway. As hard as it was to tell my story on camera I believe we all need to tell our stories in hopes that someone will see them and not jump. After all isn't that why we are obsessed with this website? I would highly recommend that anyone who has been affected by a skyway jumper contact this film maker and tell your story. The littlest bit of information that you might have on a certain jumper may bring a little bit of peace or closure to a family. I know that I would welcome any info that someone might have on my brother, Chad Bennett 10/18/08.
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