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Skaters say trail needs safety measures

Users of the Friendship Trail say they want officials to implement rules on the bridge's steep hump.

By KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2000


TAMPA -- A recent jaunt on inline skates across the old Gandy Bridge was hardly a fond memory for Julie McGee. More like a disaster, in fact.

The 37-year-old Tampa resident was headed down the bridge's hump, which rises 37 feet above the rest of the bridge span, when she skittered out of control.

She tried to slide into the curb. Instead, she bounced, smashing into the railing.

She broke a rib, she said. Her right leg, arm and knee were skinned bloody.

"I think it was the scariest thing I've been through," McGee said.

McGee's accident happened a week before another woman tumbled backward on her skates while going down the hump and cracked her unprotected head. Beverly Ann Folsom, 51, was knocked unconscious and lay in a coma at Bayfront Medical Center for 18 hours until she died March 19.

Folsom's family said they want officials to implement safety measures so the Friendship Trail, as the old bridge is called, doesn't claim any more lives. So do others who have felt the power of the hump.

"They do need something done," said Folsom's sister-in-law, Paulette Garwacki. "I know there should be some sort of (emergency) phone there," she said, and "maybe if a rail had been down the middle, (Folsom) could have grabbed onto that."

After a story about Folsom's death ran in the St. Petersburg Times last week, several people called the paper to say they had suffered similar falls on the bridge.

Officials said they don't know whether they'll install safety features. A meeting of Friendship Trail board members is set for April 14.

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties contract with the Pinellas Parks Department to manage the bridge. Both counties share liability, said Domenick Murano, Pinellas County Office of Risk Management director.

"There are no laws for Rollerbladers," said Diana Kyle, director of the Pinellas County Parks Department. "As part of the Pinellas Trail, we always recommend helmets."

Mandating them, however, is a whole other ballgame, officials said. That might take a new state law, Kyle said. Others were doubtful.

It's something Frank Miller, president of Friendship Trail Corp., said he hopes officials consider -- again. The corporation, the new park's fundraising arm, made that suggestion at a committee meeting two weeks before Folsom's fatal fall.

"We asked the question, what about requiring helmets? I'd like to ask that one again," Miller said. "We would (also) like to see signs, information about how dangerous it is . . . but we want to hear what (officials) come up with."

Dennis Malacaman, 35, a beginning blader, wears a red bicycle helmet every time he skates. Until he gets a little more experience, he's staying away from the hump. His more experienced friends make it across with no problem, he said.

"I snow ski, so I already know how to shave off speed as you're going down a hill -- just make turns," Malacaman said. He added that another skiing technique, "snowplowing," or turning one's toes inward to form a wedge, also helps him slow down.

"If you're going to fall, it's much better to fall forward than backward," he said. "You have more control that way."

Warning signs might help decrease blading accidents, Malacaman said, but he suspects they'll be no more effective than signs on expert ski slopes. "Some people just want to do the hill for the thrill of it," he said.

Marguerite Bunn, a 46-year-old GTE sales manager, suffered a spill on the bridge. An experienced skater of 10 years, Bunn said she was headed down the hump when two children on bicycles pulled in front of her.

With all the momentum, Bunn said she couldn't stop in time.

She crashed into one of the children, who was okay, and fell forward, badly bruising her back, she said.

Tony Agnew, 32, of St. Petersburg has bladed only a year, but skated on ice for 24 years before that. He doesn't think the hill is a problem as long as people pay attention to what they're doing and know their limits.

"Only better bladers should do the hump," Agnew said. "If you're a beginner, just stay on (the St. Petersburg) side and turn around. It's avoidable, it's not like it's in the middle."

Agnew doesn't wear a helmet. He recommends using a forward crouch to deal with fast spots of the trail, instead of doing what many people instinctively do -- lean backward.

-- Times staff writer Angela Moore contributed to this article.

-- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or wexler@sptimes.com.

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