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The Sunshine Skyway is now the only bridge in the country with emergency phones connected to crisis counselors. [Times photo: Pam Royal]

Bridge phones offer a new lifeline

Solar-powered phones have been installed on the Skyway to offer direct help for those contemplating suicide.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 17, 1999


The next time someone with suicide in mind stops at the crest of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, they will find a red box with a solar-powered phone inside.

All they have to do is pick up the handset and push the red button, and a specially trained counselor from the Crisis Center of Hillsborough County will answer.

photo
Michael Yakes' sister jumped from the bridge in 1997. He welcomes the phones but thinks that nets would do a better job of detterence. [Times photo: Pam Royal]
"The purpose of the phones is for the crisis center to convince them there is another way out," said Sgt. Harold Winsett, who heads the crisis negotiating team of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "This gives them another option."

The Skyway is the third-deadliest bridge in the country for suicides, said Crisis Center president Jerry Vazquez. Now it is the only bridge in the country with emergency phones connected to crisis counselors.

The Golden Gate Bridge, No. 1 on the suicide list, installed emergency phones, but they ring to the bridge authority. The Coronado Bridge in San Diego, No. 2, has no crisis phones.

Since 1996, 26 people have died after jumping off the Skyway. Most jump from the crest, 197 feet above Tampa Bay. By the time they hit the water 3.5 seconds later, their bodies are falling at 75 mph.

Michael Yakes of Gulfport, whose sister Linda Blankenship jumped from the bridge in 1997, welcomes the new phones but worries they won't stop anyone.

"There were motorist aid phones already at the bridge," he said. "A person could have picked those phones up."

Vazquez said the phones most likely will help the person who has some doubt about whether to jump.

"We hope it makes a difference," Vazquez said. "We can only be successful if a person is in a moment of ambivalence."

The Crisis Center has been working for five years to get the phones in place, Vazquez said. Not even the assistance of state Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, broke through bureaucratic inertia.

But shortly after the first of the year, Grant got a call from newly elected Gov. Jeb Bush. How are those phones on the bridge coming? he asked Grant. They're not, Grant said.

"All of a sudden I began to get tremendous cooperation," Grant said, including a call from the Florida Department of Transportation.

Bush had toured the Crisis Center in March 1998 as Grant's guest and became acquainted with the phone project. The phones are part of an effort to make the bridge less attractive to people contemplating suicide. The other part of that effort, a barrier or net underneath the bridge, is being studied.

With the help of GTE, the Crisis Center installed six phones on the Skyway, three on the north side of the bridge and three on the south side. Police reports showed that some people chose to jump from the concrete supports holding up the cables just before or after the crest, so four phones were placed in those locations.

The other two are at the crest.

Although the phones work, the entire system isn't fully operational. Each phone has caller-ID capability that will allow counselors to determine exactly where the caller is on the bridge. Right now, however, a bug in the system is interfering with that capability.

Blue signs above the phones read "Crisis Center."

Three telephones at the Crisis Center's hotline office are connected to the bridge phones. While one counselor answers the call, another will notify the Florida Highway Patrol and give them the person's location on the bridge.

The patrol will then call the crisis negotiating team at the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, which is responsible for the bridge because the shipping channel is part of Hillsborough County.

The phones were in place when 40-year-old Daniel J. LaVallie of St. Petersburg jumped to his death. He did not try to use them. The signs had not been installed then.

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