Filmmaker haunted by Sunshine Skyway bridge suicide hopes documentary will deter others

Filmmaker Sean Michael Davis wants anyone mulling a jump to know it isn’t peaceful or clean, or even a certain end. And the aftermath is nightmarish.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Filmmaker Sean Michael Davis wants anyone mulling a jump to know it isn’t peaceful or clean, or even a certain end. And the aftermath is nightmarish.

ST. PETERSBURG

Sean Michael Davis was hauling his life across the Sunshine Skyway bridge that November afternoon, almost two years ago. He was moving to a new home in Palmetto, his box truck stuffed with furniture. He admired the way the sun hit the water and thought about what lay ahead. • He saw her on the second trip: a young woman in her 20s with shoulder-length dirty blond hair and green velour pants. She parked her silver car on the northbound crest. Davis, 41, slowed his truck. • He watched the next 10 seconds unfold from his southbound lane. He tried calling 911 but could not get through to the right dispatcher. • There would be no time for an intervention. • The young woman walked straight to the wall, hiked her leg over the berm and was gone. No hesitation. No intervention. Gone.

Davis is a filmmaker. He has filmed shootings, stabbings and unthinkable violence in the past two years for the TV show COPS.

But that afternoon, there was no lens to give Davis distance. He was just another driver who didn't expect death to unfold outside his window.

The jump haunted Davis. It would have been impossible to pull her from the ledge. She was too fast, and he was too far away.

Still, he wished he could have done something. Why did he know her fate before her family?

The scene played over and over again in his head.

"It just hit me," he said. "I'm a filmmaker. I have time to do something good about this."

• • •

Skyway Down is his unfinished film.

His documentary-style side project is more of a plea to potential jumpers than an impartial account of the bridge's suicidal lore. The Skyway ranks fourth among suicide jumps from American bridges.

He wants people who have mulled a leap to know about the bloody, battered aftermath. He wants to "punch them in the face" with interviews from survivors and family members, including Hanns Jones, a survivor who has invented a metal guard that would sit on the bridge's wall and shock people who pulled on it.

These faces will explain how a jump isn't peaceful, or even a sure thing. How it resonates with strangers like him years later.

"After watching someone jump and now knowing what I know about the whole process, you're constantly wondering, 'Is there a car out there?' "

Once the not-for-profit film is wrapped — he's aiming for this winter, if not sooner — Davis wants to distribute it to suicide-prevention centers. If festivals and other venues want to pick it up, that's great, too, but he's not in it for the money.

He doesn't just want his work to be a message for potential Skyway jumpers; he envisions it as a therapy tool for anyone who has considered taking his or her life.

David Braughton, chief executive of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, said he hasn't been approached to use the film. Nor has he heard about it.

That doesn't mean it is out of the question for training and counseling purposes. Braughton wants to see the number of confirmed suicides in Hillsborough County — at 188 in 2008 — dwindle.

"There certainly is a need for video that challenges any kind of romantic notion of suicide, challenges suicide as any kind of solution to life's problems," he said. "Because it's not. It's an extremely selfish act."

• • •

Count Scott Crowell among people who hope Skyway Down will bring a change.

He's part of St. Petersburg Fire Rescue's marine unit, a team that scours water and rocks for remains after a jump. Crowell's team took Davis out on the water a couple of months back, giving Davis an up-close look at their rescue operation.

Fire Station 11 looks for Skyway jumpers about once a month, Crowell said. He has rescued two survivors in 11 years.

In short, Crowell has seen a lot. He would prefer to see less. "Maybe they'll think twice about it," he said.

Though rescuers may be eager to help, it hasn't been easy for everyone to open up.

Some potential sources are wary after watching The Bridge, a documentary about suicides from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Davis insists Skyway Down will be nothing like that film, which includes footage of jumps that Davis finds tactless.

"The Bridge is my nemesis," he said.

The Coast Guard declined an interview. Davis has no hard feelings.

"People have mixed emotions," Davis said, "and I understand that."

• • •

Davis has been a husband for 14 years and a father for 2 1/2.

Lara Davis, 42, remembers her husband's daze that November 2008 afternoon. She remembers listening to him as he worked through his disbelief.

Days later, Skyway Down — a working title she contributed — was born.

The lab analyst keeps her hands off of artistic control, but sometimes she talks about the project as a team ambition: "We want to make sure people know we're not trying to glorify people jumping off the Skyway."

Sean Davis admits he will probably never know if his film stops someone from taking the 197-foot leap. But he has to try. If Skyway Down helps one person, all the time will be worthwhile. Even if that person is just him.

"I don't know if I'll save a life," Davis said, "but I know I'll finish the film."

• • •

Trips from his Palmetto home to Rhino Productions, a film and recording studio he runs in St. Petersburg, take him across the bridge twice a day.

For a while, memories of the woman whom Davis couldn't save lingered as he drove past the spot. These days the reminders come once in a while. He has thought about it so much that the average day's commute passes without an emotional toll.

Recent suicides weighed on his mind. Two Skyway jumpers in as many days. The chaotic rescue attempts gave him great video footage — sirens blaring, marine team searching, fire trucks rushing. Rescuers couldn't find one of the bodies.

But what if he had finished the film? Could he have changed their minds?

"Two jumpers in two days," Davis said, "makes me want to get this done now."

Katie Sanders can be reached at ksanders@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

FAST FACTS

Skyway Down

Go to skywayjumper.com for the Skyway Down trailer and more information.

Sean Davis is still looking for interviews. E-mail him at
skyway.suicide@gmail.com.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at toll-free 1-800-273-8255.

Filmmaker haunted by Sunshine Skyway bridge suicide hopes documentary will deter others 06/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 15, 2010 6:17pm]

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