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Bradenton man's unlikely catch under Sunshine Skyway bridge is a lifesaver

BRADENTON

Steve Burkholder was fishing under the Sunshine Skyway bridge with two of his nephews when he heard someone scream from above: "No!"

He looked up and saw a man hurtling nearly 200 feet into the water, causing a 15-foot splash.

The fisherman lifted anchor and steered his boat to the man, who was face-up in "a dead man's float." His eyes were closed, his skin purple and swollen. His shoes were floating nearby. Blood pooled in the water around him.

Burkholder and one of his nephews pulled the man aboard his 181/2-foot boat while the other nephew called the Coast Guard.

Burkholder began CPR and listened for a heartbeat.

Silence.

He felt for a pulse.

Nothing.

He and his nephews began to pray.

About 30 seconds later, the man began to sputter and wheeze.

"You know, God uses pretty much anybody," Burkholder said. "I don't know why he chose me."

• • •

The sky was dark over Warner West Bayou in Manatee County the morning of July 17. Burkholder, 48, was preparing for a day of fishing for grouper and snapper with his nephews — Justin Saboley, 24, and Austin Saboley, 16.

The boat lights wouldn't work so he and his nephews decided to wait till sunrise.

Burkholder considers the delay a blessing.

They took to the water about 6:30 a.m. and headed for the rocks around the Skyway. But first Burkholder, as he always does, said a prayer "for safety and lots of fish."

Burkholder says he's no religious fanatic, but he prays a lot and tries to get to church every Sunday at the Bridge Church at Palma Sola Bay.

He owns a land-surveying business and calls himself a regular guy. When he's not working or fishing, he plays guitar. He drinks a beer now and then.

God didn't answer his prayer for lots of fish that morning. Not even a nibble.

Burkholder calls that a blessing, too.

Because on this particular day, with no bites and not much else to do, Burkholder steered the boat to the other side of the bridge.

It was almost 10 a.m. At that moment, about 200 feet above, a man was about to jump.

• • •

Matthew James Clark, 43, lives in Tampa, but hasn't left the intensive care unit of Bayfront Medical Center since that Friday morning. A week after he smashed into Tampa Bay, he was listed in extremely critical condition.

His brother, Dave, says the family is in no shape to talk. His mother, Kathy, says her son is coming along "as well as can be expected."

Burkholder discovered Clark's identity when he pulled out his wallet after realizing he was alive.

"I started calling him by his first name. I'll never forget his name."

Clark didn't say anything until rescuers loaded him onto a stretcher and secured his neck with a brace. He started yelling that he couldn't breathe, Burkholder said, remembering how wide the man's eyes were.

Burkholder and his nephews later ate sandwiches to calm their nerves, then decided to try fishing again.

They caught two plump jacks.

• • •

Burkholder's wife, Annette, calls him a hero. "Scripture says Jesus will make us fishers of men," Annette recalls telling her husband.

"I said, 'God literally made you a fisher of men.' "

The two met 23 years ago. Burkholder was in a motorcycle crash, and Annette came across the road to hold his head in her lap as he waited for the ambulance.

"Accidental things are good," she said.

The couple have three children — Shawn, 24; Heather, 17; and Katie, 15. "They were really proud of their dad," she said.

So was his 16-year-old nephew, Austin: "I just realized how fragile life is and how easy it can be taken away.''

• • •

Burkholder has hardly slept since it happened. When he does, he goes back to the Skyway in dreams.

In real life, he has returned twice. He calls it his therapy. But he doesn't look up much toward the big bridge, so high that speeding trucks look like toys and the massive cables like flimsy twine. He's afraid of heights.

Burkholder checks in with Clark's family every few days. He wants to talk to him. He knows what he'll say:

"Times are tough, but God's given you a second chance. He pulled you out of the water."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Steve Burkholder of Bradenton on his boat under the Sunshine Skyway bridge near where he pulled a Tampa man from the water after he attempted suicide. “Scripture says Jesus will make us fishers of men,” Annette Burkholder told her husband.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Steve Burkholder of Bradenton on his boat under the Sunshine Skyway bridge near where he pulled a Tampa man from the water after he attempted suicide. “Scripture says Jesus will make us fishers of men,” Annette Burkholder told her husband.

. fast facts

The Sunshine Skyway

• More than 130 people have jumped to their deaths from the Sunshine Skyway since the bridge opened in April 1987, making it one of the most-used bridges for suicide in the country.

• About 10 people have jumped and survived. A Rottweiler named Shasta survived after either following or being carried over the edge by its owner, who died.

• People who jump from the bridge hit the water in about 3.5 seconds at about 75 mph. The impact usually breaks bones and ruptures organs. Some survive the impact but are knocked unconscious and drown.

Where to get help on the bridge

In 1999, six crisis phones were installed on the Skyway's center spans connected to a suicide hotline.

. fast facts

Need help?

If you are considering suicide or know someone else who needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-8255.

See video

Watch video of Steve Burkholder talking about the rescue at video.tampabay.com.

Bradenton man's unlikely catch under Sunshine Skyway bridge is a lifesaver 07/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 10:43am]

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