Official unapologetic for closing Skyway
The Florida Highway Patrol and Hillsborough Sheriff's Office will meet to discuss how to handle future suicide threats.
By BRADY DENNIS
Published July 8, 2004
TAMPA - Hillsborough Sheriff's Maj. Gary Terry is the man behind the decision that left thousands of motorists sweltering Tuesday in summer gridlock on both sides of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
And he's not sorry in the least. It was the right thing to do, he said, regardless of the inconvenience.
"We had a job to do," he said.
Every driver stuck in the four-hour traffic jam, every restless child, every homesick office worker, every thirsty, starving, sweaty soul - they might not have known his name, but they were cursing him.
A man atop the Sunshine Skyway bridge was threatening suicide just after 5 p.m.
Nearly 30 miles away, at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office special operations division, Terry was getting updates from crisis workers on scene.
He gave the order to close both southbound lanes and one northbound lane.
The road didn't reopen until after 9:15 p.m. Thousands of motorists sat idle in the Florida heat for nearly four hours, a line of anger and frayed nerves stretching from Interstate 75 in Manatee County to 54th Avenue S in Pinellas County.
A Florida Highway Patrol official called the shutdown "a fiasco." People flooded phone lines and e-mail accounts with complaints.
A day later, Terry was sympathetic but unmoved.
"We did save a life last night," he said.
He said he understands the inconvenience that closing the bridge caused. He knows thousands of people were irate.
But at least one woman was not.
"The mother of the gentleman threatening to commit suicide," he said, "was eternally grateful."
* * *
Most potential jumpers arrive at night, when traffic is sparse.
Tuesday was different. A 37-year-old Clearwater man threatened to take the 197-foot plunge during rush hour.
When the FHP trooper stationed on the bridge had no luck talking him down, he called the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office to ask for a negotiator.
Several state and local agencies share jurisdiction of the bridge. Hillsborough County is responsible for the center span and the shipping channel below.
The department's emergency response team and crisis management team arrived and began negotiating with the man. That's when Terry made the call to close the bridge.
"We were having traffic come by and hollering taunts, like "Jump!' and "Go ahead and kill yourself!' " he said. "All you need is something like that to push a person over the edge."
Terry also said he didn't want cars passing by in case the man tried to harm himself, other drivers or sheriff's deputies by running into traffic.
And he said deputies weren't sure at first whether the man was armed (he wasn't), so he had snipers with rifles and ski masks stationed in the area, a move FHP officials said is uncommon but one the Sheriff's Office insists is standard protocol.
FHP officials, like many of the idle drivers, showed irritation. They said they saw no reason to close the bridge.
The FHP has stationed a round-the-clock trooper on the bridge since 2000 to monitor for potential suicides. In that time, troopers have saved 46 lives, "and we've never closed the bridge down to do that," said Trooper Larry Coggins.
Coggins also said that the FHP, along with the Florida Department of Transportation and the St. Petersburg Police Department, bore the "undue hardship" of Tuesday's incident.
"We're the ones that fielded the heat from the public," Coggins said. "It's been a siege of phone calls and e-mails."
Terry hinted that it would have been irresponsible not to close the bridge.
"It's a very volatile situation," he said. "You spend whatever time you have to spend. You can't rush it because it's 5 o'clock traffic."
Officials at both the FHP and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that they will meet soon to discuss how to handle similar Skyway situations better in the future.
"I don't know what's going to come out of this," Coggins said. "But I'm sure something will."
* * *
The man poised to jump Tuesday was Michael Vincent, 37, who made news in April after his arrest on an aggravated child abuse charge. Pinellas County sheriff's detectives said Vincent shook his 3-month-old son because the baby would not stop crying. The boy wound up in a coma.
Vincent was released from jail on April 8, but he was accused of violating a court order by contacting his wife later that month. He was jailed again on $100,000 bail, which he posted on April 14.
After meeting with his attorney Tuesday to discuss his son's medical condition, Vincent apparently headed to the Skyway. He tried to call his wife from the bridge, again violating the court order, said his attorney, Jay Hebert.
Upon learning that Vincent was threatening to jump, Hebert called the FHP and offered information about his client. He tried to drive to the bridge to help but couldn't get there because of the traffic jam.
Vincent eventually was talked down from the bridge and taken for counseling.
A judge on Wednesday issued a warrant for his arrest for violating the no-contact order a second time. Vincent was being held at the Orient Road Jail, awaiting extradition to Pinellas County, Hebert said.
Hebert said Vincent is a 9-year U.S. Army veteran who served in the Gulf War. He works as a commercial diver.
* * *
Terry arrived at work Tuesday about 7:30 a.m., so he was set to go home around rush hour, like thousands of others motorists. But then the potential jumper call came, and the negotiations wore on. Soon it was past 10 p.m.
He was stuck, just like the drivers he had stranded. When he got home, he couldn't go straight to bed.
The man who caused the traffic jam turned on his computer, pulled up the Internet and relaxed by reading about an upcoming FBI conference in Destin.
- Times staff writers Chris Tisch and Jamie Thompson and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Brady Dennis can be reached at 813 226-3386 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified July 8, 2004, 01:00:34]
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