Boaters save woman in Skyway jump
By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Robert Madill and his son were boating by the Sunshine Skyway on Sunday morning when they looked up to admire the bridge's center span.
At that moment, a woman in a mauve-colored dress climbed the rail at the top of the bridge, "put both arms in the air and just did a swan dive right over," Madill said.
They watched her fall nearly 200 feet, landing close enough for them to hear her splash into the shipping channel. When she surfaced, screaming in pain, they were shocked she was still alive.
Then they saw a freighter, "a big one," heading right for the woman, Madill said. The 42-year-old Hillsborough County business owner called 911 from his cell phone shortly after 11 a.m. as he drove his 21-foot fishing boat toward the woman.
"I'm telling you, I don't have time," Madill recalled telling a 911 operator. "I need help. I got a tanker bearing down on us."
Madill's son Michael, 17, threw the woman a rope when they got close enough. She grabbed it and they towed her away from the middle of the large channel. When they got to one side of the channel, Michael leaned overboard and started trying to pull her in.
Then, a second boat pulled alongside Madill's boat, Bob Kat. The three men in the second vessel, which had lower sides and more manpower, pulled the woman into their fishing boat.
Within about 3 minutes, the freighter was passing about 200 feet from the two boats. The freighter was able to veer just enough to hug the other side of the channel, said Phillip Tufford, 33, who was on the second boat.
"It was cutting it close," said Tufford, of Bradenton. "By the time we got there, (the freighter) was coming pretty close, maybe 200 yards. If one of the two boats had not been there, definitely she would have been run over by the large freighter."
The 31-year-old woman, who lives in St. Petersburg, was listed in serious condition late Sunday at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.
"It's unbelievable," said Hillsborough Sgt. Alan Hill. "She is very, very fortunate."
With Madill talking to rescuers on his cell phone, the two boats headed to a marina about 3 miles away to meet up with rescuers. Because the water was choppy, Tufford said, his buddies on the second boat decided the marina was too far away.
"She was moaning, and I could just hear her screams of pain over the boat's engine," Tufford said.
Tufford, Mark Flaker, 30, of Bradenton and Steve Lilley, 45, of Sarasota, who was operating the boat, headed for a rest area on the north side of the Skyway. They got about 50 feet from shore when they ran the boat aground and waited for rescuers.
About two minutes later, rescuers from a St. Petersburg marine unit arrived and placed the woman on a stretcher. With help from the boaters, rescuers carried her to shore, where paramedics were waiting.
"It was just unbelievable," said Tufford, who owns a lawn service company.
Both Tufford and Madill said they did not have time to think about whether they were placing themselves in danger when they went after the woman.
"You don't think," said Madill, a Seffner resident who owns a company that installs and maintains exotic aquariums. "You react."
When asked if he thought his actions were heroic, Madill said, "Under the circumstances, I was doing what I would hope somebody would do for me if I was in a stressful time."
He added that his son deserves a lot of credit because "he responded well for a teenager."
His son, a junior at Brandon High School, grew up around the water and is considering a future with the Coast Guard if he doesn't go to college, Madill said.
"He was hanging over the side (of the boat), looking at her face, talking to her," said Madill. "If he would have frozen, then I would have been wasting my time."
The Skyway is one of the deadliest bridges in the country for suicides. In recent years, as many as a dozen people a year have jumped to their deaths. Since the bridge opened in 1987, about a half-dozen people have survived.
In 1999, six crisis phones, which connect callers to a suicide hotline, were installed on the bridge's center spans. Shortly after Gov. Jeb Bush took office, he prodded the Department of Transportation to consider installing fences on the sides of the Skyway or safety nets below it to cut down on suicides. Those options were deemed to be unsafe or ineffective by the DOT.
Though there is a growing number of people who survive their jump off the Skyway, it is still unbelievable every time it happens, said St. Petersburg Fire Lt. Chris Bengivengo.
"What a fluke that is," Bengivengo said. "Very lucky."
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