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    Man survives plunge from Skyway bridge

    Only five other people and a dog have lived through the 200-foot drop from the bridge.

    By TODD WRIGHT

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published May 31, 2001


    As they searched the waters beneath the Sunshine Skyway bridge, rescuers were looking for a body. That's usually what they find when someone jumps the nearly 200 feet from the crest of the bridge.

    Suddenly, one of the divers noticed a naked man sitting on rocks at the base of one of the huge pillars. He was obviously in pain and was pleading for help.

    "I'm hurt bad," the man told rescuers as they approached the rocks.

    The impact of the fall apparently ripped the clothes off the 36-year-old white Pinellas County man. Rescuers estimated he then swam 40 yards and climbed atop the rocks.

    "It's amazing that he lived," said St. Petersburg Fire Department paramedic Jim Cunningham. "I was expecting to find another dead body."

    The man, whose identity had not been confirmed late Wednesday, was placed on a 25-foot U.S. Coast Guard boat and driven to Maximo Park, where he was transferred to an ambulance and taken to Bayfront Medical Center.

    Cunningham said the man suffered multiple rib fractures, substantial internal bleeding and a decompressed left lung.

    "He was very alert when we got to him, but in an obvious amount of pain," Cunningham said.

    The rescue began as the fire department's marine dive team received the dispatch call at 5:06 p.m.

    Passers-by on the bridge called 911 and reported that a man was standing on the rail at the top of the center span. His pickup truck was parked a few feet away.

    Capt. Don Masters said the man jumped from the top of the center span, about a 200-foot drop to the water.

    Most don't survive.

    In recent years, as many as a dozen people a year have jumped to their deaths. The number rose from six in 1996 to eight in 1997, then to 12 in 1998 and 1999.

    The Skyway has the reputation of being a magnet for suicides. It's the third-deadliest bridge in the country for suicides, after San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and San Diego's Coronado Bridge.

    But some who jump off the Skyway survive.

    Records show that five people have survived their leaps since the bridge opened in 1987.

    The most recent was Katherine Freeman, 42, who leaped from the bridge about a year ago after killing her ex-husband and trying to kill his wife. Officials credited brisk winds with slowing her descent. The fall broke her pelvis and legs. She is now in prison.

    A Rottweiler named Shasta survived the fall when her owner jumped to his death in May 1998. It was never known whether the dog followed her master or went involuntarily.

    In recent years, state officials have focused more on suicide prevention on the bridge.

    In 1999, six crisis phones were installed on the bridge's center spans. The red phones connect callers to a suicide hotline.

    Shortly after Gov. Jeb Bush took office, he prodded the Department of Transportation to consider installing fences on the sides of the Skyway or safety nets below it to cut down on suicides.

    The DOT ruled out those options, saying fences would affect the bridge's aerodynamics and could make it less safe in high winds, and safety nets might be ineffective because people could crawl to the edge of the net and jump from there.

    Instead, the DOT favored a different strategy: putting more FHP troopers and security cameras on the Skyway.

    A trooper now patrols the bridge 24 hours a day.

    - Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.

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