ST. PETERSBURG — Uber driver Chad Farley suspected something was wrong Monday night when a passenger asked to be dropped off in the middle of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
There's no walkway for pedestrians along the iconic span, nowhere even to step safely at the top. Walking on the Skyway 200 feet above the water is something people do when they're contemplating a jump to their death, from the place that holds the grim distinction as Florida's top spot for suicide.
So instead, Farley, an Uber driver for the past year, chatted up the passenger, learned he had brain cancer, prayed with the man, held his hand — even snapped a photo of them smiling together before dropping him off at the rest stop to the north of the bridge. Farley, 41, of Gulfport, told the man, who held up a peace sign in the photo, that he just wanted to remember what he looked like.
What he really wanted was something to show authorities once he called 911. Farley's suspicions proved correct. His call brought state troopers who ended up rescuing the 28-year-old St. Petersburg man after he entered the water near the pier.
"He was getting out, but before he did, I told him how much God loves him," Farley told the Tampa Bay Times. "I just held out my hand, and when he gave me his hand it was shaking like an uneven wheel on a car going down the highway, it was shaking so badly."
Sgt. Steve Gaskins, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, said the two troopers — Cpl. Robert Friesen and Trooper Kristen Middleton — "did an outstanding job." Gaskins also praised Farley for reaching out to authorities with his concerns about his troubled passenger.
"We're the ones trained to deal with people in these kinds of situations," Gaskins said.
Uber, in a statement to the Times, said the company advises drivers to call 911 if faced with an urgent or emergency situation.
"We deeply appreciate Mr. Farley's quick thinking and compassion for his rider," Uber said, "as well as law enforcement's fast response."
The man was listed in critical but stable condition at Bayfront Medical Center on Tuesday, Gaskins said. The troopers were not injured.
Farley described how the ride unfolded.
"I picked him up from his house and he started the conversation, telling me he'd gotten the news from his doctor that he had brain cancer ... I told him about my mother, who passed from cancer. I asked him if he was in school and he said yes, that he wanted to be a counselor, that he wanted to help hopeless people. I commended him for that."
But Farley grew concerned late into the ride when he realized the destination his passenger had entered into the Uber app was right in the center of the bridge — and the passenger provided an unbelievable explanation: He planned to call an ambulance from the bridge to take him to his doctor in Tampa, as ordered by the doctor.
Farley said he stopped at a bridge toll booth and "made eye signals" to the attendant that "something was up with my passenger." After getting his passenger to repeat the strange story to workers there, a supervisor at the booth advised that he proceed to the safety of the rest area near the pier and use the phone there instead.
Once there, driver and passenger resumed their conversation. The man assured Farley he wouldn't jump, "but I could tell he was lying."
Photo taken, the man got out of the car around 8:30 p.m. and Farley called 911. He was asked to send over the photo. Later, he got a call back saying the man had been pulled from the water but was okay.
"I don't know why anyone in their right mind would have dropped him off at the top of the bridge, but if he'd gotten up there, I think he'd be dead now," Farley said.
The highway patrol provided this account of what happened in between.
The troopers located the man and began talking to him, but he walked away and entered the water near a fishing pier entrance off southbound I-275.
He ignored their pleas to return and submerged himself. The troopers removed gear and went underwater to search for him. After several minutes, they found him, unconscious, brought him the surface and administered CPR until medical responders arrived.
Farley said he plans to visit the man in the hospital, and had called the highway patrol to find out his name. The Uber app erases that information once a dropoff is made.
A leader at Community Bible Baptist Church, Farley said he treats his Uber driving as an extension of his ministry.
"Riders open up to you about a lot of things you wouldn't expect them to tell strangers," he said. " I keep my church business card in the car. If someone is hurting, I give it to them."
Contact Christopher Spata at email@example.com. Follow @SpataTimes.