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10 times too many, they chose Skyway


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 1998

Stephanie Lee Banasiak, 45, rented a 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier on Monday afternoon at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

I do not know why she chose a Chevrolet Cavalier, or why she did the things that she did afterward.

At about 7:30 p.m., she was driving south on Interstate 275, toward her home in Bradenton. At the top of the Sunshine Skyway, she pulled her car onto the shoulder and got out.

It is a glorious and scary view. Over your right shoulder you can see St. Petersburg, and the white outline of Tropicana Field. Behind your back, far to the east, if the sky is not too hazy, you can see the skyline of downtown Tampa.

The deck of the bridge shudders menacingly under the weight of passing cars. A steady, strong breeze whips your hair as you stand there under the giant, graceful web of the bridge cables, 200 feet above the water. Look straight down and the tiny whitecaps seem deceptively close; only when you raise your eyes and look around do you realize how high up you are.

The sun was within an hour of setting, and low in the western sky, when Stephanie Lee Banasiak stopped her car, got out, got up on the concrete wall, which is only about 31/2 feet tall, and jumped.

She was the 10th person to die after jumping from the Skyway so far this year, which is not yet half over.

In all of last year, eight people did it.

The year before that, there were six.

I talked Tuesday to some good people at the Crisis Center of Hillsborough County (the center of the bridge, from which most people jump, is in Hillsborough). I asked them if publicity about these deaths encourages copycats.

They said that here is what needs to be publicized:

Anyone who has read or heard about these things happening on the Sunshine Skyway, and who feels desperate enough to follow, should take one more second, one more minute, and dial an easy telephone number first.

The number is 234-1234.

"Suicide is a very permanent solution to a temporary problem," Bev Hanney, a spokeswoman for the crisis center, said sadly Tuesday afternoon.

"They just for the moment feel so hopeless," Hanney said. "That's why it's so important to let this community know that there is a resource. It's free. It's confidential. It's anonymous."

That's 234-1234.

The crisis center is working with GTE to install crisis telephones atop the bridge. There already are 18 telephones along the 4.1-mile span to link motorists to road assistance, but none are exactly in the right spot.

More problematic is whether the Department of Transportation can install a fence or some other sort of barrier to make jumping harder. The waist-high concrete wall is no obstacle.

The department is looking at what others have done to make bridges less accessible. That will be finished in about 60 days. But any remedy is likely to be expensive and complicated -- and not, so far, in any budget.

The Skyway is a bit of an orphan, geographically speaking. It links Pinellas and Manatee counties, but lies in Hillsborough. There are no voters or taxpayers there; no feeling of political responsibility that would spur one mayor or another, one county commission or another, one local legislator or another, to lead the way.

So we wait for studies, while the crisis center works with GTE to at least put a telephone in the right spot, to give those who stop there one more chance.

In the meantime . . .

In the meantime, for those who go to the Skyway, intending to do this final thing, the only "one more chance" will come from themselves.

Please, please make this promise:

Before you go, before you even get in the car, dial this number.

It's 234-1234.

Do it.

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