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Troopers determine life, death on Skyway

The officers' quick action saves a 22-year-old man just as he jumps off the bridge.

By KELLY VIRELLA
Published June 1, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - The moon was so bright atop the Sunshine Skyway bridge that even at 3 a.m. the Florida Highway Patrol trooper could see the eyes of the man preparing to jump.

Wearing a white tank top and blue shorts, he was hanging on the bridge railing, about 200 feet above Tampa Bay.

As the trooper approached, 22-year-old Eugene Ayala-Cruz was saying he had lost both of his jobs. He said he didn't want to live anymore.

Then, he let go.

In an instant, a second trooper lurched for Ayala-Cruz and grabbed his arms.

The two troopers, assisted by two St. Petersburg Fire Rescue officers, pulled the 6-foot, 200-pound man back onto the bridge.

Ayala-Cruz wept.

"It's not worth taking your own life," one of the troopers, Mark Cross, said later Monday. "There's nothing that can't be fixed or corrected."

Ayala-Cruz was taken to St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg for 72 hours of observation and psychiatric evaluation.

He became the sixth near-suicide victim to be rescued from the Skyway bridge this year by an FHP trooper.

At least three others have jumped to their deaths, said Trooper Larry Coggins, an FHP spokesman.

When Ayala-Cruz got to the bridge and parked his Honda Accord early Monday morning, he called a friend from his cell phone to say he was jumping, Cross said.

The friend called 911, which dispatched Cross.

Cross hurriedly finished ticketing a speeding driver on the Manatee County side of the bridge and rushed to Ayala-Cruz, who was on the southbound lanes at the top of the arch.

When Cross reached Ayala-Cruz, the man was still on his cell phone.

"He was yelling at me to go back," Cross said. "I kept saying we're not going to take you to jail. That's not what we're here for."

Cross remained 20 to 25 feet away from Ayala-Cruz and continued trying to coax him to safety.

Trooper Daniel Cole arrived moments later, then sneaked up behind Ayala-Cruz.

As Cole approached, Cross' heart was pounding.

He tried to recall his crisis intervention training and his experience with three past suicides, two of which he prevented.

"You have a beautiful little girl," Cross told Ayala-Cruz. "She needs her daddy."

Ayala-Cruz wouldn't listen.

When he let go of the bridge, Cross thought it was over.

But Cole snagged the arms of Ayala-Cruz.

Until his shift ended at 7 a.m., Cross had the jitters.

It was his first time encountering a jumper on the bridge.

"It was very emotional," Cross said. "After the struggle itself, it was pretty physically exhausting."

[Last modified June 1, 2004, 01:00:29]


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