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Suicide threat paralyzes Skyway bridge traffic for hours

By JAMIE THOMPSON
Published July 7, 2004


[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Southbound traffic approaching the Skyway bridge was jammed for hours Tuesday. This was the view southward from the on-ramp at the Pinellas Bayway about 6:45 p.m.

Related 10 News video

Traffic stalled as Skyway closes

ST. PETERSBURG - Michael Geraci passed the toll booth on the Sunshine Skyway bridge about 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, headed home for spaghetti and meatballs.

Instead, he and thousands of drivers were stuck in traffic for nearly four hours until Hillsborough sheriff's deputies were able to coax a suicidal man off the bridge.

"This is horrible," Geraci said about 9:30 p.m. "There are elderly people out here, stuck in the 90-degree heat."

Thousands of people jammed telephone lines at the Florida Highway Patrol, angry about Hillsborough deputies' decision to close down most lanes of traffic to deal with the potential jumper.

People were sweaty, hungry and thirsty, and dozens began walking toward a rest area on the bridge to use the restroom, Geraci said. Men climbed on top of pickups, trying to catch a glimpse of activity on the bridge.

"No one came to help, to give water, or even to tell us what was happening," Geraci said. "That's the most disheartening part of this whole ordeal."

Hillsborough deputies shut down traffic on the Skyway shortly after 5 p.m. when a man threatened to plunge 197 feet off the southbound side of the bridge into Tampa Bay. He was taken into custody about 9:15 p.m. and referred to counselors.

But during the drama, all southbound lanes were shut down about 31/2 hours, and one northbound lane was closed, said Debbie Carter, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

The FHP was not happy about closing so many lanes of traffic.

"It's absolutely a fiasco out there," said FHP spokesman Larry Coggins. "That's why we didn't want the bridge closed."

Several law enforcement agencies share jurisdiction of the bridge. Hillsborough County is responsible for the center span, but the FHP also patrols the road.

Coggins said lane closures backed up traffic to Interstate 75 in Manatee County and to 54th Avenue S in Pinellas County.

Since the FHP began its suicide patrol in 2000, troopers have saved 46 people without causing such delays, Coggins said.

The incident was coming to a close as Mike McClatchy drove north over the bridge from Sarasota to Pinellas County. He looked over to the other side and saw at least a dozen patrol cruisers, lights flashing.

He saw a man standing with his back to the bridge and thought he looked relaxed. About 30 or 50 feet away, a sniper was pointing a rifle at the man, McClatchy said.

Additionally, a number of officers wearing ski masks were hiding strategically on the bridge, holding rifles, McClatchy said. "It looked like they were getting ready to take the guy out."

Carter, of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, said the agency sent its crisis management team.

She said officers closed the bridge to negotiate with the man, and also to ensure that he wouldn't run in front of a moving vehicle. She said deputies needed weapons because they didn't know if the man was armed.

He was not, deputies later discovered.

Officers knew shutting down the bridge around 5 p.m. would create a "logistical nightmare," Carter said, but didn't feel they had a choice.

"You're trying to convince an individual to remove themselves from the bridge," she said. "You can't put a time frame on that."

- Jamie Thompson can be reached at 727 893-8455, or by e-mail at jjones@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 7, 2004, 01:03:26]


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