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Rescuer pulls would-be Skyway jumper back from the edge

TAMPA — Because of the rain, Guelmis Yanes left for work 15 minutes early Friday. A construction job waited for him in Sarasota, which put the 27-year-old on the Sunshine Skyway before sunrise, listening to Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

Something caught his eye:

A red Mustang, empty, hazard lights flashing.

A lone woman, walking up the slant of the bridge.

The car must have broken down, Yanes thought. The woman looked about the same age as his mother. Maybe she needed a ride. He passed her and stopped, watching her silhouette in his rear-view mirror. He figured she was walking toward the bridge phone. Then, she was gone.

Had she jumped?

He thought about the day in October when he saw a burning car on the bridge. It had turned out to be a murder-suicide. Just this week, he saw troopers gather after a 30-year-old woman plunged to her death.

Yanes, who recounted these details in an interview Friday evening with the Times, left his car and felt the rain whip his face. He had driven this bridge so many times but had never stepped on it. He thought the wind might blow him away.

Then, he saw the woman's hands hooked over the edge of the bridge's retaining wall. Then, her legs, swinging over toward him. She had pulled herself back up.

She was 51 and not much taller than 5 feet. Her hair was short and blonde, and she smelled of cigarette smoke.

"Please," Yanes yelled as he ran up to her, "don't jump."

The woman looked exhausted.

"I've got to do it," he remembers her saying. "I've got to do it."

"No," he told her, "you don't. This is not the answer to your problems."

She responded, "You don't know my problems."

She had no job, no prospects. She said, "I cannot live on $275 a week." He told her his father, a welder, was out of work, too. He asked if he could take her to a coffee shop, right then, and talk. He told her he didn't mind getting to work late, and that he'd pay.

He remembers what she told him. "No no, please," she said. "I've got to do this."

She had crouched down with her back to the wall of the bridge, so Yanes thought she had changed her mind. He took out his cell phone and called 911. The operator couldn't hear him, so he shouted. He lost sight of the woman for a second, and when he looked for her, she was gone.

Then, he saw the hands again. He ran. He peered over the edge, and there she was, struggling to climb back up. He reached over with his right hand and grabbed the wall with his left.

There they stood again. The woman dripped with sweat. He didn't know what to say. Then, something popped into his head:

"Do you believe in God?"

The woman said yes.

"Do you believe he wants you to do this when he gave you the opportunity to live?"

She looked down, and asked if he thought she would go to hell. He asked, "Do you have any children?" Yes. "Grandchildren?" Yes. "Do you really think that this is fair to them?"

She stayed quiet. He tried to cry, thinking that might help. "I have a mother," he told her. "I have a father. I have a grandmother. I don't know what I would do if they did this."

The woman didn't say anything. She took a big breath.

"Okay," he told her, "I'm going to call somebody to come and help us."

His own phone hadn't worked, so he walked to the bridge phone, which meant turning his back on her. He held that phone up to one ear and his cell up to another, trying to get through.

A third time, she climbed over the wall.

He screamed, "Don't jump!"

This time, she looked more tired as she clung to the wall's edge. "Help," she pleaded. "Help." He reached over again, one arm on her pants, one arm on the wall, fighting the wind. He looked at the dark water and worried she might pull him down. With strength he didn't know he had, he pulled her up.

This time, he pinned her to the ground. Cars zoomed by. Yanes saw a Florida Highway Patrol trooper stop at the woman's car and look over the wall. He was at least a football field away.

The patrolman didn't seem to notice them at first.

In the minutes that followed, the woman would tell Yanes he was ruining everything. She would scratch him and threaten to take him down. He would not let go as he forced her down the bridge toward the trooper, all of her weight in his arms. A hospital would keep her for her own protection.

All day, he would think about her.

It began with one step, one command.

"Come on," Yanes told her, "get up."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.

Rescuer pulls would-be Skyway jumper back from the edge 12/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 19, 2009 11:29am]
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