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Trooper brings people back from edge

By BRAD GOLDSTEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 1998


ST. PETERSBURG -- He has no training in crisis management.

He has never done any counseling.

But three times in the past four days, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James C. Covert has managed to talk distraught people out of jumping off the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

The 27-year-old former carpenter says humility and the ability to engage each person in conversation went a long way in helping him prevent three potential suicides.

"I just want to get them to talk to me," said Covert, who most recently persuaded a middle-aged man not to jump from the bridge late Thursday. "I assured him I wasn't that brave that I could wrestle somebody on the top of a bridge where I could go over myself."

But Covert's supervisors say the trooper has a special gift. They have recommended he receive a commendation for bravery.

"It takes a special person to do what Covert did and make it go right," says Highway Patrol Lt. Mike Guzman. "That kind of thing can turn on you in a second. . . . He definitely is above the norm in being able to talk to people at a time when the end is near."

Covert says he doesn't understand why so many Tampa Bay residents recently have committed suicide from the Skyway.

Nine people have taken their lives from the bridge already this year. Eight people committed suicide off the bridge in all of last year. The increase in deaths has caused some Tampa Bay residents to call for fences and phone hot lines to be installed along the bridge.

"It seems a little busier," Covert said. "I don't know if the recent publications about people going up there . . . if that's spurring people or encouraging people to go up there. . . . I don't know."

Covert joined the force nearly three years ago. He was raised in Darian, N.Y., and graduated from the State University of New York-Brockport with a degree in criminology.

While a class at the police academy offers instruction in how to handle potential suicides, troopers learn how to defuse crisis situations through on-the-job training, Guzman says.

Normally, Covert is assigned to patrol state highways on the midnight shift out of the Pinellas Park district. He says he does not routinely cover the Skyway, but that changed earlier this week when he was dispatched to the top of the bridge to help a stranded motorist.

As he approached the car, he found an elderly woman standing next to the guardrail, looking off into the distance. Covert says the woman appeared to be in good health. As soon as she started complaining about problems at home, he said, he realized her car was not the problem. She openly told him she was going to jump.

"It sends shivers up your spine," he said. "I wanted to know what they were thinking. . . . I wanted to hear what they had to say and try what I could to remedy it. I tried to create a little bit of a rapport."

Covert says the 15-minute conversation felt as if it lasted five hours. In the end, he persuaded the woman to drive her car to the nearby pier, where the two discussed her problems. The woman was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

Early Tuesday, Covert was pulled off an assignment and sent to help a disabled motorist at the top of the Skyway. When he arrived, he found a middle-aged woman who said she had problems at home.

"The first time it caught me off guard," he says. "The second time, I was hoping it was just a disabled vehicle. A tire change or a tow truck or something like that."

Again, Covert got the woman to drive to the south fishing pier and talk. She later drove home.

On Thursday evening, Covert was patrolling along the bridge when he received his third call. He found a middle-aged man, dressed in a shirt and jeans, standing next to the barrier at the top of the bridge. The man told Covert he was having problems and intended to jump.

"I tried to get him to talk about his kids," says Covert. "I tried to explain to him, (his kids) were young and maybe the kids would blame themselves. That's a heavy burden to put on his children."

The conversation worked. The man was admitted to a hospital.

His bosses were thankful Covert was in the right place to help.

"He's special," Guzman said. "Not everyone can do what he did."


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