ST. PETERSBURG — Fire-Rescue Lt. Brad Dykens has lost count of the times he's arrived too late when someone wants to die.
The paramedic and crisis counselor has pulled onto the Sunshine Skyway bridge before, only to learn that a person already has plunged to the water 197 feet below.
But on Friday — the day after Christmas — he left work feeling ecstatic. He and Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Jorge Santamaria had talked a 55-year-old man down from the Skyway, which is one of the most used bridges for suicide in the nation.
"Sometimes it's too late," Dykens said. "This time I'm happy to say we were there on time."
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About 3:50 p.m. Friday, authorities received reports that a man had parked his white Grand Marquis on the bridge. Callers said he was leaning over the railing. He appeared to be praying.
In his eight years in counseling, Dykens said, he has helped probably a half-dozen suicidal people. But only once before had he saved a Skyway jumper, though that rescue had more to do with quick reflexes than persuasive talk. The man actually jumped, but Dykens and others grabbed his hair, arm and belt and flopped him back to safety.
"It wasn't pretty, but it was effective," said Dykens, a 24-year Fire Rescue veteran. "There's nothing more disconcerting than looking past his feet and seeing the abyss below. It's a long way down."
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At first, the would-be jumper on Friday said he was praying for another man who plummeted from the bridge Christmas Eve. Then he admitted he was despondent, especially about Christmas. When Dykens asked about his holiday, the man answered with a stream of expletives. Dykens tried to listen.
He never found out where the man was from or why he was so upset. Counselors know it's not wise to ask for details; it will only make the person feel worse.
Dykens typically uses a familiar line with people considering suicide: "You're choosing a permanent solution for a temporary problem."
But the man on Friday stepped away from the side before Dykens even could use the line. He didn't want to jump.
He said the man gave a half-hearted thank you as he agreed to go with a trooper to the hospital for mental evaluation under Florida's Baker Act.
Dykens counts it as a victory, a nice change in what's been a tragic December for the Skyway, with three people jumping to their deaths in the past three weeks.
Dykens knows the holidays are hard for many people. He encourages people to reach out to friends or acquaintances who seem down. A small compliment or an inquiry into how they're doing can make a difference, he said. "I truly felt like I saved a life today," Dykens said. "That's more than any money can pay me doing this job."