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Skyway tragedies tarnish span's reputation for architectural beauty

The Skyway Bridge, with its 192-foot-high center span, ranks fourth for suicides. The Golden Gate Bridge is No. 1.

JOE WALLES | Times (2003)

The Skyway Bridge, with its 192-foot-high center span, ranks fourth for suicides. The Golden Gate Bridge is No. 1.

The Sunshine Skyway opened 22 years ago with a ribbon-cutting and speeches, hailing the structure as an engineering marvel and a symbol of the Tampa Bay area's future.

But for those who know and travel the bridge, it is as likely to conjure thoughts of lives gone awry as any appreciation of architectural beauty.

This week's murder-suicide left traffic tied up for hours after a man jumped to his death and left a body burning in a car trunk.

For many, it was just the latest reminder of the Skyway's grim reputation.

Carissa Caricato, a spokeswoman for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, was one of the drivers stuck in the Skyway's northbound lanes about 7 p.m. Monday. She typically avoids the bridge "at all costs," she said. When she found out what the trouble was, her heart sank.

"It's one thing to know about the things that go on there," Caricato said. "But to actually see the scene is … very intense."

• • •

The original Sunshine Skyway opened in 1954. It was replaced after one of the most horrific tragedies in the area's history: In 1980, a wayward phosphate freighter rammed into the southbound span, collapsing a section. Vehicles plunged into Tampa Bay, and 35 people died.

A new, high-tech $240-million Skyway Bridge went up seven years later. It is one of the most recognized landmarks in the area but also carries the distinction of being one of the country's deadliest bridges for suicides.

The Skyway ranks fourth behind three bridges on the West Coast, including the top-ranked Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

More than 130 people have died jumping from the bridge since it opened in 1987. About a dozen who made the 192-foot drop have survived.

Theories vary on why people jump from a bridge. Some believe suicidal people are drawn to public acts, perhaps to send a message. Others believe in a copycat effect.

Dr. Jerome Motto ran a ward for suicidal patients at the University of California at San Francisco for more than 30 years and has published 85 works on suicide and suicide prevention.

"From my experience and intuitive judgment, to commit suicide in any beautiful place de-stigmatizes the act," said Motto, considered a top expert on bridge suicides, having interviewed and studied several Golden Gate survivors. "The majesty of the setting diminishes, and sometimes obliterates, that stigma."

Over the years he has weighed in on various ideas to reduce or stop suicide attempts on bridges.

"With the Golden Gate Bridge, I know some of those ideas have not been that successful," he said. "But you do what you can do."

• • •

After nearly two dozen Skyway suicides in 1998 and 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush asked state transportation officials to consider safety nets or fences on the sides of the Skyway.

The DOT ruled out those options, saying fences would affect the bridge's aerodynamics and could make it less safe in high winds. Safety nets would be ineffective because people could crawl to the edge of the net and jump.

Instead, the DOT installed six solar-powered crisis phones along the bridge. The phones call into the 24-hour Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, alerting operators with a special ring.

The center has received 27 suicide calls from the phones in the past 10 years, including four in the past five months, Caricato said. In all but one of those, the caller didn't jump.

Monday's events also revived questions about surveillance cameras. Thirteen cameras help monitor traffic and other activity on the main span. Images from the cameras are observed by DOT employees at an office in Tampa.

But the cameras can't cover the entire bridge, and they don't record the images. By the time Monday's incident popped into view, all the DOT employee could see was a burning car on the edge of the camera's range.

The quality of the feeds from the Skyway are also grainy, said DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson.

"There's been no pressure" to do more, Carson said, "because I think what we do is pretty effective."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report.

Skyway tragedies tarnish span's reputation for architectural beauty 10/14/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 15, 2009 10:58am]
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