Image: Hanns Jones
Chris O'Meara  /  AP
Hanns Jones holds drawings he made of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Petersburg, Fla. He survived a jump from the bridge on May 30, 2001. Jones says he’s fine and happy today, and he often wonders why he survived when so many others didn’t.
updated 5/2/2008 2:16:24 PM ET 2008-05-02T18:16:24

Working suicide patrol on the towering Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Leif Cardwell rolled up to find the 58-year-old woman with one leg already draped over the short concrete barrier wall. The license plate on the Ford minivan she drove there said: “HPPY NOW.”

Cardwell kept his distance, imploring her to talk to him about her problems and not go through with it. He had thwarted a bridge suicide attempt two months before.

“It’s too late,” she kept saying. She threw down her driver’s license and cell phone and swung her other leg over.

Then she was gone, just like that.

Seconds later came a loud crash when she hit the water. “It was a very windy day, it was noisy, but it was clearly audible...,” recalls the 38-year-old trooper. “It is a violent way to go.”

Despondent souls keep stopping at the peak of the majestic Florida Gulf Coast landmark to kill themselves every year, adding to its reputation as one of the country’s most notorious bridges for jumpers.

It’s a problem that the state has tried to address with 24-hour patrols, surveillance cameras and crisis hot line phones at the top. Now it’s possible that the bridge patrol, which troopers say has saved dozens of lives since it was initiated in 2000, could be cut back as the cash-strapped state government struggles to make ends meet.

Image: Sunshine Skyway Bridge
Chris O'Meara  /  AP
Around 120 people have killed themselves by jumping off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge since it opened in April 1987.
Ten people jumped to their deaths at the Skyway last year. But seven others were talked out of it or wrestled away from the edge by one of the troopers who drive back and forth across the 4-mile bridge around the clock specifically for that reason. One night last month, a trooper found a silver Jaguar abandoned by a 22-year-old man whose body was found in the bay; then the following day, the same officer stopped a 39-year-old would-be jumper.

Around 120 people have killed themselves there since the higher, cable-supported version of the Skyway opened in April 1987, carrying traffic across the mouth of Tampa Bay on Interstate 275.

For unknown reasons, the rate started picking up in the mid-1990s, and over the past decade an average of eight people a year have died there, highway patrol and sheriff’s office statistics show.

The worst was 2003: 13 dead, 10 other attempts.

Patrols thwart suicide attempts
Those who fall the roughly 200 feet from the center span of the bridge hit the dark water in less than four seconds, moving at around 75 mph. The impact tears away their clothes, shatters bones, ruptures internal organs. Some hit the rocks.

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The vast majority drive less than an hour to get there, paying the $1 toll to get on the bridge. Many leave notes in their cars. Records show them coming at all hours on every day of the week. The most popular day: Sunday.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush asked the Department of Transportation to look into the possibility of installing new barriers or even nets. Those ideas proved unrealistic because of the aerodynamics of the bridge and other factors, but the push resulted in the installation of the six crisis hot line phones and 24-hour patrols.

By being constantly on or around the bridge, troopers have thwarted more than 90 suicide attempts since 2000, the highway patrol says. Regardless, a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman acknowledged that the $330,000-a-year program that pays troopers to work extra duty on the Skyway is being scrutinized as the agency tightens its belt.

The key to saving people, officials say, is being able to get an officer there within minutes after a car stops on the bridge, which is not otherwise accessible to pedestrians.

By then the more resolute have already jumped, some not even bothering to shut off the engine. But many are still sitting in their cars crying when the officer rolls up. Or they’re out, pacing or sitting on the 3 1/2-foot-high wall. If the trooper can get to them, they’re taken into custody for a mental evaluation.

“There are some who aren’t committed to jumping, and those are the ones we can save,” says highway patrol Lt. Harold Frear, who coordinates the bridge detail. “We don’t want them to sit up there long enough to think about it and decide they want to go through with it.”

Trooper Dan Cole worked the detail a couple times a week for around four years and never lost anyone over the side.

“I think I’ve physically grabbed six off the wall, two that had been totally hanging over the wall,” says Cole, who received a commendation for one of the saves.

Why jump off a bridge?
Some believe that nothing short of a barrier or fence will solve the problem for good. That’s been the response in other places.

A barrier is being studied for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, widely regarded as the most popular suicide spot in the world. At least 1,250 people have jumped from the bridge since it opened in 1937.

Construction of an 8-foot fence is expected to begin next year to deter jumpers at Seattle’s Aurora Bridge, where at least 40 people have killed themselves in the past decade. A barrier is also in the works for the Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Suicides were reduced from around 20 a year to zero at Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct after the construction of a barrier in 2003.

Why jump off a bridge? Survivors have cited convenience and the romanticism associated with ending their lives in beautiful locales, floating through space before being enveloped by the water and then darkness.

“They think of transcendental flight through the air and then they’re going to hit the water and drown,” says Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. “This isn’t in their mind that it’s going to be as traumatic a death as it is. It has some magical thinking attached to it.”

“Maybe they think it’s a sure thing,” offers Cardwell, the state trooper. “Maybe for those who don’t want to commit suicide, it’s a way to get attention pretty quickly.”

“I honestly have no idea why,” says Mary McNamara of Sarasota, whose troubled 31-year-old son became the first bridge suicide of 2008 on Feb. 12. His body still hasn’t been found.

A 49-year-old woman who killed herself at the Skyway in August told one of her sisters that she decided to do it after seeing “The Bridge,” a 2006 documentary about jumpers at the Golden Gate Bridge.

'It was a big mistake'
Experts note that once a locale gets a reputation as a suicide spot, it inevitably attracts more people there to do the deed. And the Skyway’s reputation is established.

Image: rose and crucifix
Chris O'Meara  /  AP
A crucifix and red rose float in the water near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Ten people jumped to their death from the majestic Florida Gulf Coast landmark last year.
In 1993, a 16-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy stepped off together in a lovers’ suicide pact. News reports at the time said they were upset that the boy’s mother was sending him away to live with his father.

In 1998, a 100-pound Rottweiler named Shasta went over with her owner, a 44-year-old Lakeland man. The dog survived and became a local media sensation as animal-lovers clamored to adopt her.

A Tampa woman named Katherine Freeman fatally shot her ex-husband and tried to strangle his wife in May 2000. She drove to the bridge and jumped, only to become one of the half dozen or so people who have survived the fall from the center. She recovered and was sentenced to life in prison.

A year later, a St. Petersburg man named Hanns Jones also survived.

The now 42-year-old artist and inventor was despondent over business pressures, heavy drinking and a horrible fight with his wife.

At around 5 p.m. on May 30, 2001, he drove his old red Ford pickup to the top. The John Lennon song, “I’m Losing You,” was playing on the radio on the way. Or maybe it was in his head.

“Right after I jumped I thought it was a big mistake,” he says.

It wasn’t what he expected.

“You just accelerate, accelerate so fast and then it stops,” he says. “But when you stop, you don’t feel like you hit water. You feel like you hit the concrete.”

Despite multiple rib fractures, internal bleeding and a collapsed lung, he was able to swim to the rocks near one of the pylons. He was sitting there naked when rescuers arrived, and then spent weeks in the hospital recovering.

Jones says he’s fine and happy today, and he often wonders why he survived when so many others didn’t. But he understands why they come to jump.

“You get to that point and it seems surreal,” he says. “You just want that unbelievable pain to go away.”

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