One early evening 8 1/2 years ago, Hanns Jones, 35, lovelorn and broke, parked his purple pickup truck at the top of the Sunshine Skyway bridge and dived 197 feet toward his almost certain death in the tropical blue of Tampa Bay.
People sometimes think that to jump off a bridge in a beautiful place is a more beautiful way to die. It's a lie.
You feel for a moment like you're floating. That moment ends. Then you're falling, survivors say, and then you're accelerating, and before you can think about how fast you're accelerating you crash into the water. You don't splash. You crash.
From the center span of the skyway, you hit the water in about 3 1/2 seconds, and by that time you're going approximately 75 mph. Your clothes are ripped off, and your innards are torn apart. You typically bleed to death on the inside, or you drown, or both.
On May 30, 2001, when Hanns hit the water shortly after 5, his spleen burst, his left lung collapsed, and he broke ribs on both sides and fractured the C7 vertebra in his neck. Under the surface, where it was no longer pretty and light, but murky and dark, his eyes opened wide.
Two Coast Guard boats went looking for a body.
Instead, they found Hanns, some 40 yards from where he had gone in, sitting on some rocks around the base of one of the bridge's concrete pillars, naked.
A rescuer looked down at him, and looked up at the bridge, and asked if he had just jumped.
He said yes.
The rescuer asked him if he was okay.
He said no.
It would be another five years before he scribbled on a piece of paper the words LIFE SAVER PROJECT.
How did Hanns get here?
He moved often when he was young: born in Texas, lived in California, Missouri, Florida. He never knew his father. His mother got divorced twice.
He's dyslexic. He dropped out in the 10th grade. He can fix a lawn mower or paint a house better than he can read or write. Job applications give him problems.
He has had jobs, here and there, over the years: sandblaster, groundskeeper, strip club bathroom man. He lived in his van for a while. He's a drinker.
His natural line of thought is the daydream.
"You know how sometimes you're watching a movie, and someone says your name, and you're like, 'What? What? What?' " he said one recent afternoon in his home in south St. Petersburg.
That, he said, is what he's like all the time.
But that's not all bad, he said: "If everybody was paying attention to the same thing, nothing would ever be invented."
Before he jumped, his biggest invention, and what he thought was going to be his big break, was a Velcro contraption that kept socks together in the washer and dryer. Go to socklocker.com. His idea. But he got pushed out by his partners and investors because they say he was hard to work with.
By the spring of '01, he had no job, no money. He had a son and a daughter in Missouri and a son in Orlando that he didn't see or support. He had a swollen face from a wicked toothache that he couldn't afford to fix.
And one night he had a fight with the woman he was living with, Chi Le, the mother of his fourth child, a son, then an infant. He put his hands around her neck and pushed her against a wall.
He spent that night in a cheap hotel in Clearwater, he said. He drove by to talk to Chi the next day, and that didn't go well at all. So he drove to the bridge. And he paid his toll.
• • •
He wanted to live as soon as he tried to die.
He swam toward the rocks, half a football field away, with a broken neck, and was picked up and taken in an ambulance to nearby Bayfront hospital.
Chi got a call from a doctor. She waited a day before she went to see Hanns.
"Too angry," she said years later.
Hanns spent a couple of weeks in the hospital. He spent a couple of months with his sister in Missouri. He wrote Chi love letters. She didn't write back. They talked some on the phone.
When he returned to Florida, they got back together, then split up, then got back together again, and eventually had a second son. They've stayed together since.
Now he's an inventor with a second chance. And his latest invention is a device he hopes will give others the same.
It came to him a couple of years back, he said, "just this explosion in my head."
It's the E.S.R. That's short for the Electro Safety Rail. It's a metal guard that would be rigged on top of the skyway's short concrete wall and shock people who pulled on it — not enough to kill them, but enough to stop them.
The sketches of his LIFE SAVER PROJECT are on hannsjones.com.
"I'm not accidentally alive," he said one evening at his home, sitting next to the rough prototype, "and it's no accident that I'm a United States inventor.
"I don't want to be known as the guy who jumped off that bridge," he added. "I want to be known as the guy who stops anybody else from jumping off that bridge."
It's a long shot.
• • •
Some bridges have suicide barriers. Most do not.
The skyway, the long, picturesque landmark that connects Pinellas and Manatee counties, is the nation's fourth-most-frequent suicide bridge. For the past decade or so, it has had surveillance cameras, red-button "crisis" phones and a state trooper who patrols the bridge at all times. In the past 10 years — essentially since those "life-saving" tactics came to be — at least 81 people have jumped (probably more, but sometimes they just disappear and are never found) and 11 lived.
Physical barriers are expensive, critics say, or ugly, or architecturally untenable. In the early '70s, authorities in San Francisco looked into different forms of barriers for the Golden Gate Bridge, including high-voltage laser beams. That was nixed because of the likelihood of possibly fatal jolts, and also just the general unseemliness of the idea.
"If I were a suicidal person," suicide expert Jerome Motto said on the phone, "I would not see that as a very compassionate way to help me.
"I am not aware," he said, "of any place in the world where an electrification process has been used."
And then there's Hanns.
• • •
He smokes a pack a day of Pall Malls. He drinks Natural Ice tall boys. The guy who works at the local drive-through beer joint knows what he wants.
He doesn't have a driver's license. He doesn't have a license because he owes child support.
Chi, whom he calls his wife although they aren't officially married, runs a company that connects landlords with low-income tenants, and Hanns helps fix up the houses.
They live in the main building of an old shotgun-style boardinghouse. It's in foreclosure.
One morning he took a smoke break from putting primer on walls and sat on the concrete stoop in front of a fixer-upper.
"I really think America's getting cheated that I'm not in a research lab somewhere, working night and day on the railing system," he said.
"Right now, I'm just stuck with my pen and my paper, scratching and pecking and drawing."
It's easy to dismiss him, and maybe with good reason, as a talker, not a doer, even an occasional ranter and raver. He sends lots of e-mails. He sends lots of Facebook messages. He talks and talks.
Sometimes he sounds like he thinks he's in a movie. He'll stand up all of a sudden. He'll get real melodramatic. He'll speak with a vaguely British accent.
Sometimes he sounds like he thinks he's in an infomercial: "You can help save lives! Go to hannsjones.com."
He's "brilliant," and he's "passionate," said Charles Gelini, one of his former Sock Locker partners — also, though, "a detriment to himself." He didn't want to take the product to market, Gelini said, just wanted to wait and wait, think and think. Never finish.
At the fixer-upper, the smoke break continued for most of the morning, and he kept saying he was supposed to be doing something.
"My imagination is boiling," he said. "There's so much left to create.
"I feel like a horse standing behind the race gates, and I can't get out."
He pounded his fist into his thigh.
It was quiet except for the breeze blowing through two tall Australian pines in the yard.
• • •
Second chances are only that. Not the first. Still just a chance.
"I thought it was a doorway to somewhere else," Hanns said of those 197 feet down. "I didn't know where.
"Now," he said, "I think it's here."
Here: He's 44 and still broke. He still drinks. He still owes child support. He has an idea, and some drawings, and a small prototype. He wrote the governor asking for his support.
"Dear Sir," he wrote. "You are a great Gov. Please Take a look at this. United States Inventor H.F. Jones. God be with you."
The response came from the Office of Citizen Services: "Inventors such as yourself form the backbone of our nation's innovative history, and the Governor is glad that you have shared your thoughts with him."
He has his two sons who live with him here. He has Chi.
Hanns says they're in love. Chi says yes, true, but she also says this: "I still want to get rid of him sometimes. No relationship is perfect. But I am very thankful he's still alive."
"When you're a kid," Hanns said, "you're raised with this mind-set that you live happily ever after. No you don't."
But imperfection, disappointment, even heartbreak — what he has come to realize is that those things aren't the same as meaninglessness. They're no reason to jump. Has he tried again? To kill himself?
"Heavens, no," he said.
It's interesting, too, to listen to him talk about God. He wrestles with it. He doesn't know what it is, but he knows that there's something larger than him or us, something that let him live.
"If you're out there in life, and if you're trying to care, it's like something cares back," he said. "If that's the God you're talking about, that's the God I'm talking about."
Add this, then, to the list of things he has: perspective.
When he jumped, he said, he was "a failed inventor."
The followup question was obvious if delicate: What are you now?
"I'm a success," Hanns said, "waiting to happen."
News researchers Caryn Baird and Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751.