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Pinellas deputy stops woman from jumping off Sunshine Skyway bridge

By Josh Solomon
Pinellas sheriff's Deputy Damon Laney, 37, talks at a Wednesday news conference about the woman he kept from jumping off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge the night before. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas sheriff’s Deputy Damon Laney was driving north over the Sunshine Skyway bridge Tuesday night when he came upon a grim but familiar scene:

A car parked along the side of the bridge.

Many have committed suicide by driving themselves to the top of the bay area’s tallest bridge and then jumping into the water below.

It was about to happen again that night, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said, until Laney intervened.

"I wasn’t going to let her jump today," the deputy said at a news conference Wednesday.

Laney, 37, who works in the unit that targets impaired drivers, was heading to an off-duty assignment at Northside Hospital on Tuesday night.

Then about 11:50 p.m. he came upon the car stopped on the right side of the bridge, with its right turn signal flashing.

Was it disabled? Or had someone stopped to take a photo? People have done it in the past, Laney said.

He slowed down, turned on his emergency lights and radioed his location to dispatch.

But before he could stop, the deputy said he saw the car’s driver get out.

"As I was approaching with my lights on, a female subject jumped out of the driver seat," Laney said. "She started walking toward my cruiser a little bit, and then started running, and ran right toward the wall to go over the side of the bridge."

Laney was still behind the wheel. How could he stop her from jumping over the wall?

He used his vehicle: "I wasn’t able to get out in time to get to her, so I used the push bar of my cruiser to actually pin her legs against the wall of the bridge."

Push bars are the big metal bars attached to the front of police and emergency vehicles that can be used to push disabled vehicles off the roadway.

The woman, though, wasn’t about to give up.

"As soon as I did that, she grabbed onto my push bar and was trying to free herself," the deputy said.

But when he put his unmarked 2013 Dodge Charger in park, Laney said, it rolled back just a bit. The woman was able to wiggle free. The deputy then jumped out.

Laney said he grabbed her by the waist as she tried to throw her legs over the wall.

"She kept saying ‘Let me go, let me go,’?" he said.

He pulled her back onto the roadway. But she continued to fight him.

"Let me jump, let me jump," the deputy recalled her saying.

He handcuffed her and placed her in the back of his vehicle.

"I informed her that it’s not going to happen today," he said.

Laney said this was the first time he had ever pinned somebody using his bumper. He feared hurting her, but knew the alternative was far worse.

The Sheriff’s Office said the woman was from Tampa and was not seriously injured. She was not identified by the agency.

She was taken into custody under the Baker Act, a law that allows someone to be involuntarily held for mental examination if they are believed to be a danger to themselves or others.