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    Leap from Skyway changes his life

    "I was just happy to be alive,'' says a man who survived a 200-foot suicide jump into the water.

    By TODD WRIGHT

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 12, 2001


    "I was just happy to be alive," says a man who survived a 200-foot suicide jump into the water.

    ST. PETERSBURG -- To Hanns Jones, his 200-foot free fall from the Sunshine Skyway bridge on May 30 was a scene unfolding in slow motion.

    At first, he felt like a bird in flight, relaxed and calm while admiring the rays cutting through the clouds. Then, as the unforgiving blue water drew nearer, Jones felt his muscles tense, bracing for a fatal impact.

    "Right before impact I realized that this was a bad idea," said Jones, 35.

    Jones crashed feet-first into the water, the force ripping his clothes from his body. He briefly lost consciousness, and he thought he was dead. As he surged to the surface, the image of his 17-month-old son, Braner, reawakened him.

    "I saw his eyes and I said, "There is no way I'm not going to make it to those rocks,' " Jones said.

    With fractured ribs and a collapsed left lung, Jones managed to swim to rocks some 40 yards away.

    "I was just happy to be alive. All my problems washed away in my mind," he said.

    When he reached the rocks, Jones could feel the intense pain from his injured ribs. He could not raise his arms above his shoulders. He only hoped that help would come.

    "I thought to myself, "I really did it this time,' " Jones said.

    Help arrived minutes later from the St. Petersburg Fire Department and U.S. Coast Guard. Jones was rushed to Bayfront Medical Center, where he remains under 24 hour supervision. The fall also ruptured his spleen and fractured a vertebra in his neck, which requires him to wear a halo for the next two months.

    Jones said his brush with death has helped him realize the preciousness of life and the importance of his role in the lives of his four children.

    "I was ashamed of myself because I don't want my kids to grow up without a father like I did," said Jones, who called the St. Petersburg Times to tell his story. "I care a hell of a lot now if I live or not."

    Jones said it was a lack of knowledge about his father that ultimately pushed him to consider killing himself.

    An inventor, Jones has been looking for his father for years, but has found no information about him. A last-ditch effort to get a picture of his father turned up empty, pushing Jones into a depressed state.

    A Father's Day card that Jones carries around for sentimental value was found in the 1972 Ford pickup truck that he drove to the span of the bridge. Jones said matters only got worse when he and his girlfriend broke up the night before.

    "Without love, it's like someone pulled the plug on life," said Jones. "I didn't care whether I lived or died."

    Jones says financial difficulties put a further strain on the relationship with his girlfriend. All of his money and time was devoted to working on his inventions, he said.

    "It was like pulling teeth. As an inventor, you either make it or starve, and I was starving," said Jones, who in 1999 received a patent for an invention called the Sock Locker, designed to keep pairs of socks together while being washed. He sold the idea to Viable Products L.C. in Tampa.

    Jones said the combination of personal and professional difficulties took him to the top of the bridge where, 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.

    Jones is among a rare few who survived. Records show that five people have survived their leaps since the bridge opened in 1987.

    Given a second chance, Jones says he will stop his search for his father and focus on being a father himself. After being released from the hospital, Jones plans to move in with his sister in Missouri, where he can try to piece things back together.

    His passion, however, remains inventing.

    "I am what I am," said Jones. "I wouldn't give up inventing for anything."

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