Rash of Jumpers Casts Shadow on Splendor of Florida Bridge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Graceful and golden-hued, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is an American architectural treasure--its four-mile span over the mouth of Tampa Bay both a vital highway and a work of art.

And yet, there is a dark side to its shimmering grandeur.

Nearly two decades after 35 motorists and passengers plunged to their deaths when a freighter rammed the old bridge, people have begun to commit suicide in record numbers by jumping from this new one.

At least 10 people have killed themselves by leaping from the center of the span so far this year--two more than jumped in all of 1997--and no one seems to understand why. "It's a real puzzle," said Jerry Vazquez, director of a Hillsborough County crisis center.

The suicide rate here does not come close to the Golden Gate Bridge, where in 1995, 45 people killed themselves by jumping into the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay.

But local law enforcement officials and mental health counselors are worried that the Sunshine Skyway Bridge already has acquired a macabre allure that could turn it into a magnet for the suicidal.

"We are treating this as serious business, and we want to do something about it," said Lt. Stan Doss of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department. "We had three who jumped two weeks ago, and three others were talked down."

Last week, state transportation officials reviewed plans to install several telephones near the top of the span that would connect callers to crisis management counselors. They also have been consulting with engineers at the Golden Gate Bridge District on plans for barriers to prevent people from climbing over the sides.

"We build roads and bridges and maintain them, but what people do when they're out there is up to them," Department of Transportation spokesman Ron Winter said. "Why one bridge suddenly becomes a place where people decide to commit suicide, we don't know."

The percentage of people who take their lives by jumping from bridges or buildings is in fact small. Of 31,284 suicides recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1995--the last year for which figures are available--713, or 2.3%, were classified as "jumping from high places." Most people who kill themselves use guns.

Yet the publicity that comes with suicides from bridges seems to inspire other jumpers, according to psychologists. "Just as there are copycat crimes, there are copycat suicides," said University of Miami professor Paul Blaney. "And then, after so many, it can become a real phenomenon."

When the present Sunshine Skyway Bridge--a cable-stayed suspension structure that cost $220 million--opened in 1987, one critic said that it "may well rank as the most impressive piece of large-scale bridge design in this country in half a century." Unlike the Golden Gate, in which the roadway hangs from parallel sets of cables swooping down from towers, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is held up by cables running from the towers directly to the center of the roadway.

And many here saw in the elegant span an expression of confidence in the future of the Tampa Bay region as it rose toward the top tier of America's urban centers--with the population surging past 2 million and a major league baseball franchise finally settled in St. Petersburg's long-vacant domed stadium.

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The shipping mishap that made a new bridge necessary truly was a horror. A driving rainstorm had shrouded the Tampa Bay area in mist and fog on May 9, 1980, when the freighter Summit Venture lost its way and plowed into a support on the bridge's south end. As the roadway collapsed, a Greyhound bus and seven vehicles plummeted into the bay. Only one of the 36 people thrown into the water survived.

The replacement bridge, which took five years to build, was an immediate hit, with 31,000 vehicles a day passing over the span linking St. Petersburg to Interstate 75.

Approaching from the St. Petersburg, or north, side, motorists first see only the slender concrete pylons towering over the blue waters of the bay, and little of the yellow-painted steel cables strung through the pylons, making a harp-shaped pattern on either side. From the south, however, the roadway curves so that travelers see the span in semi-profile. Driving onto the bridge, the roadway rises toward its peak of nearly 20 stories over the bay, giving motorists the sensation of climbing toward the sky.

Just five months after it was opened to traffic, however, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge also showed signs of possessing a darker attraction. The first known suicide from the new bridge was that of a 30-year-old man who drove to the top of the span, abandoned his motorcycle and climbed over the 3 1/2-foot concrete wall. In 1992, a 24-year-old Sarasota carpenter tied one end of a rope to the bumper of his truck, looped the other end around his neck and jumped. His body swung from the span for three hours before rescue workers could cut him down. The next year, two teenage lovers, upset that they were being separated by the boy's parents, jumped off the bridge together.

The distance from the center of the span to the water is 197 feet--about 25 feet less than from the Golden Gate Bridge--but at a free-fall speed of about 75 mph, the drop is almost always fatal.

This year, there has been one survivor--a Rottweiler named Shasta who was pulled from the bay May 6 after her owner, a 44-year-old Central Florida man, jumped to his death. Doss said that while the old bridge did attract a few suicides, the span was so much lower that jumpers succeeded only half the time.

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Those who favor installing barriers on the new bridge--there is no pedestrian access--cite studies that suggest the majority of people who can be dissuaded from jumping will not go on to kill themselves. A 20-year-old study by Oakland psychologist Richard H. Seiden found that only 10% of the 515 people talked down from the Golden Gate Bridge between 1937 and 1971 went on to commit suicide.

Barriers on the Empire State Building in New York, Paris' Eiffel Tower and on the Arroyo Seco Bridge in Pasadena have made suicides there nearly impossible. Now being tested is a proposed $2.5-million steel wire barrier designed for the Golden Gate Bridge.

Although barriers, nets or other restraining devices could compromise the beauty of the landmark, Doss is among those who say the rising suicide rate mandates prevention efforts. "Video cameras up here sometimes catch people who stop their cars, look over the side and leave. It's so dad-gum high, it's intimidating," Doss said. "So they say, 'Maybe I'll go talk to somebody.'

"Usually people who are going to jump have problems that can be solved. I know the bridge is a work of art. But so is a human life."

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Times researcher Anna M. Virtue in Miami contributed to this story.

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