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Bush working to stop Skyway suicides

Phones linked to a crisis center will soon be installed on the bridge, and a fence or net is being studied.

By PETER WALLSTEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 1999


TALLAHASSEE -- Hoping to stop a rising number of suicides, Gov. Jeb Bush wants the state to build a barrier that would block people from jumping off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Bush toured a Hillsborough County crisis center as a candidate last year and took to heart concerns that too many people were jumping off the Skyway to commit suicide.

Now he's pushing state transportation officials to make swift improvements -- cellular phones and perhaps a fence or netting -- to one of the state's most picturesque bridges.

"Hey, I'm governor now," he said Tuesday. "I don't have to wait."

Law enforcement officials and crisis counselors have been worried for years about people jumping off the 12-year-old span, 197 feet above Tampa Bay at its crest.

The number of people who killed themselves by jumping from the Skyway steadily increased in the mid-1990s.

In 1996, there were six. In 1997, eight more people jumped to their deaths. By spring of 1998, the last time numbers were tallied, seven people already had plunged to their deaths.

"It's troubling that people are jumping off that bridge in record numbers," Bush said.

Bush called state Transportation Secretary Tom Barry last week to urge a speedy resolution to the problem.

In a memo to the governor, Barry says the department is moving quickly to study options for a "Skyway safety barrier."

Bush referred to a "netting," though Barry said Tuesday that there are many options. The department's study, to be completed by early May, would consider aesthetics, cost and even the danger from high winds.

"If you have a bridge like the Skyway, when you add something to it that wasn't intended, you do have to make sure you're not creating a problem," Barry said. "There could be noise and vibrations. And if you put something up that nobody can get through, how do you maintain and inspect the underside of the bridge?"

A similar proposal has led to heated debate in California, where there is intense pressure to protect the beauty of the historic Golden Gate Bridge.

More than 1,000 people have jumped to their deaths off the San Francisco bridge in six decades, far more than any other bridge. Public safety patrols monitor the bridge's sidewalks, and crisis phones have been installed.

But Golden Gate officials have struggled for years over the idea of a barrier. A spokeswoman said Monday the bridge's board of directors may be close to finding a barrier they like, but it has not been easy.

"We have not found one that is agreeable from the perspective of visual and aesthetic impact," said Mary Currie, a spokeswoman for the bridge. "We've studied a lot and ended up with a lot of rejections."

In Florida, the DOT has hired the Skyway's original designers to look for a solution.

Gene Figg, president of the Figg Engineering Group of Tallahassee, said Monday that it is too early to say whether he can find a barrier that would retain the beauty of the bridge.

Figg said he is not concerned about obstructing the view, but is relieved that another firm won't be able to tinker with his design.

"At least we can have an opportunity to make it as aesthetic as possible," Figg said. "I think that's a real plus, to have the designer try to handle the situation."

Neither Figg nor Barry could provide a cost estimate for a barrier.

"That would depend on so many factors, how high, how big, how long on the bridge to build it," Figg said.

Bush's directive may have a more immediate result.

The DOT soon will add six red, solar-powered cellular telephones at various points along the span.

The phones will connect users immediately to the Crisis Center of Hillsborough County, where counselors are on duty around the clock. The phones will be located at the crest and at the piers, where suicides often occur.

Bush learned about the suicide problem when he toured the Hillsborough crisis center in March 1998 with state Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa. Center officials told him the phones could help, and the advice stayed with him.

A year later, crisis center officials are hoping the phones get installed quickly.

"At the time a person is going to commit suicide, it's a very permanent solution to a temporary problem," said crisis center spokeswoman Beverly Hanney. "At the moment they're feeling hopeless, so there's always going to be that person who's going to do it no matter what.

"But if we make it more difficult and give them opportunities to talk it out, the chance is that we can prevent it."

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