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For many, Sunshine Skyway bridge is a dark symbol of sadness and loss

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 1998


On the morning of Dec. 23, Linda Blankenship told her elderly mother she had to run an errand. Then she drove to the Sunshine Skyway and pulled over at the crest of the bridge.

She got out and sat on the railing, her feet dangling over the side, 197 feet from the water.

A few minutes passed. Then, Blankenship pushed off and fell to her death.

She was one of eight people to commit suicide last year from the bridge linking Pinellas and Manatee counties. Already this year there have been seven more, and the increase has led to a call for better safety measures on the bridge to save lives.

The family of 46-year-old Blankenship believes that jumping from the Skyway presented itself as too easy. They wonder whether her death could have been prevented.

Blankenship was divorced and had lived with her mother in Gulfport for three years. Her ex-husband and two college-age children live in Georgia.

A slim, neatly dressed woman in family photos, Blankenship went to therapy and took medication for depression. She volunteered at local charities. She seemed to be doing well.

Perhaps she was upset that she could not give her kids lavish Christmas presents. Perhaps she had driven to the bridge to find her brother, Michael Yakes, who oversees safety at state toll plazas. Maybe she had a spontaneous impulse to jump.

Her family theorizes. They will never know.

But Yakes has asked his employers at the Florida Department of Transportation to study placing a barrier on the bridge's main span to prevent suicides.

"It's hard to accept the death of my sister," said Yakes, who also is the mayor of Gulfport. "But I would feel better if I could prevent this from happening to some other family. I see my mother every day, and this won't go away."

Yakes says he is approaching state officials as the brother of a suicide victim, rather than as a 37-year employee of the DOT or as the seven-year mayor of the small town of Gulfport.

He and another engineer in the Tampa Bay Regional Toll Office, Lee Bohning, estimate it might cost the state about $20,000 to study suicide prevention on the bridge. Bohning supports Yakes as a friend, not as a state employee.

Yakes finds himself among several local suicide prevention groups and law enforcement agencies who are concerned about increasing suicides from the bridge.

Barely four months into the year, seven people have paid their $1 toll and killed themselves, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which has jurisdiction for investigating suicides.

Eight people died in 1997, and police persuaded 11 others to leave the edge.

In 1996, six people killed themselves. Two people actually survived the fall. Five people were stopped from jumping.

Most of the victims were white, middle-aged males. Often, they were intoxicated.

"The numbers are going up," said Hillsborough sheriff's Lt. Stan Doss, who oversees suicide prevention efforts.

The most recent suicide from the bridge was on Sunday. William David Chester, a 41-year-old Sarasota truck driver with a history of drug abuse, stopped at the toll plaza about 4:30 a.m. Sunday. He handed a worker his watch, wallet and a note with his address. Then he drove to the top.

"We used to go fishing down at the pier there," said his grandmother, Alvera Walker, with whom he lived. "I think he just started thinking about his problems and felt desperate. Now, nothing can bring him back."

Nationwide, only a small number of suicide victims jump to their deaths. Most suicides -- 60 percent -- involve guns. In 1996, the six Skyway deaths were only 2 percent of some 307 suicides in the Tampa Bay area.

But the latest figures place the Sunshine Skyway among the most notorious American bridges for suicide, says Diane Smith, a spokeswoman for the Crisis Center of Hillsborough County, which runs a suicide hot line. The most infamous is San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, where 45 people were reported to have jumped in 1995, the last year with available statistics.

Jerry Vazquez, president of the Crisis Center in the Tampa Bay area, has formed a task force with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and GTE Corp. to develop the concept of putting phones on the Skyway connected to a suicide hotline.

"If we do nothing, we continue to allow people to commit suicide without the chance of making contact with help," Vazquez said. "We have an obligation to do something."

Ken Hartmann, the DOT's district secretary, says he is willing to listen to such proposals for suicide prevention.

At the top of the Skyway, only a concrete wall roughly 31/2 feet high borders the apex of the main span of the 4.1-mile suspension bridge. The wind can be gusty at the top. The bridge sways slightly.

The plunge to the water lasts about 3.5 seconds. Most people are killed when they hit the water at 75 mph, breaking their necks and rupturing their organs. Some live for minutes before they drown.

Suicide barriers have successfully deterred suicide on other bridges and structures such as as the Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower, although no one knows if would-be victims merely choose another way to kill themselves.

The Golden Gate Bridge District is in the final stages of developing a $2.5-million high-tech, metal wire suicide barrier for the landmark, where at least 1,200 people have died. A community coalition believes that a barrier will be more effective than suicide hot lines already on that bridge.

But the idea has been controversial.

"There is a lot of public sentiment about changes in appearance to the bridge," said Mervin Giacomini, district bridge engineer.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office has suggested adding suicide barriers on the Skyway, but has been told they would be unattractive and expensive, said Doss, the sheriff's lieutenant.

Among his jobs, Doss oversees six deputies who are trained to talk to people who threaten suicide. He also spent four years negotiating on the Skyway himself, although he is scared of heights. The Florida Highway Patrol, which often arrives on the bridge first, doesn't have such specialists.

Doss supports installing hot line phones.

"Most people have a temporary problem," Doss said. "If they pick up a phone and we can get someone up there to talk to them, there's a 99 percent chance they won't jump."

If people can be prevented from jumping, research shows they may not go on to commit suicide other ways, says Richard Seiden, a psychologist and retired college professor in the Golden Gate coalition.

Seiden studied 515 people who had been hauled off the Golden Gate over 40 years. Only 6 percent committed suicide in the next 20 years of their lives.

Back at the Skyway, it costs about $1,200 each time the U.S. Coast Guard has to recover a body from Tampa Bay. But the cost in pain and suffering of the families who lose loved ones at the bridge is impossible to measure.

Another recent victim was Daniel Israel Johnson, a 21-year-old senior at the University of South Florida. He died April 3. Johnson's body washed ashore at Egmont Key on Tuesday.

Johnson studied management information systems in the College of Business. He had earned good grades as a McNair Scholar, a program designed to help low-income and first-generation students get into graduate school, said Denotra Lee, Johnson's college adviser.

Friends described Johnson as responsible, friendly and articulate, sometimes introverted. He was an officer in groups for African-American business students. He was a hard worker.

"Here is a gentleman who had really surpassed the stereotypes of the low-income black man," Lee said, crying in her office.

"He could have walked out of the university with a $50,000 job. He had leadership, experience and the grades. His stock was very high. I don't know what could have happened. This is really devastating."

Lee is organizing a fund to help pay for Johnson's burial and create a trust fund for his brother.

Johnson is survived by his mother, Lathenia Eve Johnson, and a teenage brother, Jason, both of Tampa. His mother could not be reached for comment.

Johnson was engaged to Felicia Hart, a 20-year-old Hillsborough Community College student. The couple had planned to go to Cancun, Mexico, this weekend for fun, Hart said. Friday evening, Johnson told her he was going to the mall, she said. Then he drove to the Skyway.

"He did this for reasons we'll never know," Hart said. "We have to remember him the way that he was -- not the way that he left us."


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