Saturday, November 17, 2018
Public safety

Eckerd rescue team finds Skyway jumper alive

ST. PETERSBURG — The minute the alert came in, the checklist took shape in Jordan Kuperberg's mind.

Get in the water. Tell the crew to get ready to pull the woman out of the bay. Swim to her. Keep her head above water. Get back on board. Get back to land.

She steadied her mind, focusing on each step in turn. She pushed away her astonishment: This was the first time she'd responded to a Sunshine Skyway bridge jumper and found the person alive.

On Monday afternoon, a 38-year-old woman from Tampa leaped from the southbound side of the bridge. About 30 minutes later, Kuperberg was keeping her afloat as the Eckerd College search and rescue team coordinated a rescue.

"In the moment, you have to learn how to compartmentalize and focus on one thing and at the same time not get tunnel vision," Kuperberg said. "It's kind of a tightrope that you walk."

Kuperberg, 23, grew up around water in Maryland, a competitive swimmer and lifeguard. On a tour of Eckerd College, a student introduced her to the search and rescue program.

When she graduated in 2014, it was with four years of search and rescue experience under her belt. In October 2014, she became a staff instructor.

Her first big test as a leader on the squad came on the January night when police say 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck was dropped from the Dick Misener Bridge north of the Skyway by her father.

As coordinator, Kuperberg called the shots during the search for Phoebe: where to go, who's involved, what comes next.

"Pretty surreal," she said. "That happening in January was like, 'Oh my goodness.' It was the first actual high-stress situation where I was pushed out of the nest to see if I could fly on my own."

What she learned in her training, she said, was how to take things step by step, how to keep an uncluttered mind.

"It's all about staying calm and maintaining your composure," she said. "If you're freaking out, your boat is not going to do well."

On Monday, Kuperberg's pager pinged at 1:15 p.m., alerting the team to a water rescue in the area. Another staffer took the reins as coordinator while Kuperberg boarded the boat along with three students. At 1:22 p.m., they were under way, with Kuperberg as first mate and first responder.

Kuperberg has worked suicides before, but it's not a number she likes to tally. She had never seen anyone survive that long fall.

As the boat neared the bridge's center span about 20 minutes later, though, she saw a man holding a woman's head above water near the bridge's pilings.

Close by, another man waited with two water scooters.

Kuperberg put on a rescue vest and harness attached to a floating line and swam about 15 feet to the woman. She had a quick conversation with the man:

"Okay, do you have her?" he asked.

"Yes, I have her supported," she said, floating the woman on her life vest and signaling the boat to reel them in. She tried to calm the woman, who was speaking and in obvious pain.

That pain demanded a different method of lifting her onboard besides the usual backboard. The team slipped a sheet under her and lifted her up.

The whole transaction took one minute. The Eckerd team then sped to O'Neill's Marina in St. Petersburg, arriving at 1:57 p.m. The woman was taken away in an ambulance.

"I was surprised, but obviously, it's a very rewarding situation when you're able to get on scene and find the patient alert, and you're really able to help them out," Kuperberg said.

The Skyway, where a jumper can hit the water at about 75 mph in just 3.5 seconds, sees an average of eight deaths from its edge per year. That statistic makes it the deadliest so-called "suicide bridge" east of the Mississippi River.

But some do survive. In 2009, the Times reported that more than 130 people had died jumping from the bridge since it reopened in 1987. About a dozen who made the nearly 200 foot drop had survived.

Sgt. Steve Gaskins of the Florida Highway Patrol said he does not release the names of jumpers. He said the woman was in serious condition Monday afternoon and was being treated.

Kuperberg said the day was a reminder of why she is grateful for the rescue program.

"We were happy that we were able to help somebody out and that she survived," Eckerd College spokesman Tom Scherberger said. "It's a pretty rare event for someone to survive."

After the adrenaline rush of the rescue, Kuperberg said, the mood among the team was elation. The operation was smooth, even textbook, as one supervisor put it.

Just like she was trained.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.

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