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Skyway safeguards don't deter jumpers

At least 10 people have jumped already this year, despite crisis phones and 24-hour patrols.

JAMIE JONES
Published October 6, 2003

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. Jamie Jones can be reached at 727 893-8455 or jjones@sptimes.com

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