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As record year ends, Florida studying suicide prevention barriers for Sunshine Skyway bridge

The Department of Transportation also plans to install new technology to detect people who may be intent on jumping. The toll for 2018 —18 dead.
Published Jan. 5

The text from Rob Rivard's stepson came at 5:23 one Sunday morning in November.

A 20-year-old student at Pasco-Hernando State College, Chris Machesney was excited about launching a modeling career. Rivard and his wife hadn't seen signs that Machesney was unhappy, but when Rivard read the text that morning, he knew it was meant to be a final goodbye.

Rivard frantically called his stepson's cell phone but never got an answer. He would learn later that a police officer had been alerted to a car parked at the top of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and pulled up to Machesney's Toyota Camry at 5:34 a.m.

By then, the young man was already gone.

"Within eight minutes of him texting me, he jumped," Rivard said.

Machesney was one of 18 people to die by suicide from the Skyway last year, a record number that surpassed the previous high mark of 13 set in 2003 and tied in 2017, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. A 19th person who jumped last year survived the fall.

For years, the Florida Department of Transportation has rejected calls to install netting or fencing to deter jumpers from the iconic bridge. But this week, a department spokeswoman said officials are studying vertical barriers that could be installed along the bridge walls to deter suicide attempts.

In addition, the department is about to install new technology that will detect pedestrians and stopped cars to more quickly alert authorities to a potential jumper.

That's encouraging news for Rivard, who has been lobbying the state to take measures that might have saved his stepson.

"At that moment in their lives, they've made a decision," Rivard said. "You've got to make it hard for them so first responders can get there."

• • •

The Skyway has attracted people set on taking their own lives since the 1960s, when previous versions of the bridge spanned Tampa Bay. Records show suicide there began to accelerate when the current bridge, with its cables forming twin triangles visible for miles, opened in 1987.

At its highest point, the bridge deck soars to nearly 200 feet.

Since the current bridge opened, 236 people, or an average of about eight people each year, have killed themselves by jumping from the Skyway, Highway Patrol records show, making it one of the deadliest bridges in the country.

Overall activity on the bridge — the number of suicides, saves and reports of possible jumpers — has generally trended upward, especially in the last decade. In 2018, at least nine people who appeared to be ready to jump were stopped before they could, records show.

At the nation's deadliest bridge for suicides, San Francisco's Golden Gate, workers began installing a stainless steel net last summer. The Florida Department of Transportation has fielded calls for similar nets or fencing on the Skyway for decades.

In a Transportation Department study conducted about 20 years ago, a number of concerns were raised about netting — that it might fling jumpers back onto the bridge and into traffic, ensnare trash and wildlife, impede equipment used to inspect the bridge, and mar the bridge's iconic appearance.

Another option is some kind of vertical barrier, such as a fence. As recently as last month, the Transportation Department said it had not found a fencing system that would accommodate the truck-mounted extended arms used to reach under the bridge for a complete inspection.

But the department is very concerned about suicides from the bridge and is in the process of researching new barrier technology, spokeswoman Kris Carson said in an email this week.

"The department is re-examining all options to see if any technological advances have occurred including the feasibility of a vertical barrier to be placed on the outside wall," Carson said.

The research involves structural analysis, an environmental study and coordination with the State Historic Preservation Office. The office must grant its approval to ensure any additional structures are compatible with the bridge's iconic design. The process could take more than a year, Carson said.

Meantime, the department will soon put in place "pedestrian and stopped vehicle detectors," she said, that should reduce response time by authorities when motorists park on the bridge.

Carson did not have additional details Friday.

After his stepson's death, Rivard contacted the Transportation Department about installing fencing or netting. He then called the office of Gov. Rick Scott and a representative got back to him the next day, saying Scott got his message.

Rivard was soon on a conference call with transportation officials who told him that they were looking into a vertical barrier and that new infrared cameras, monitored around the clock to detect possible jumpers, should be up by this summer.

"I hope they do what they say they're going to do," said Rivard, who lives in New Tampa with wife Maritza Machesney, Chris' mother. "I'm not going away. I'll be patient now, but I'm not going to be lip-serviced. I just want something done."

• • •

Some measures in place on the Skyway have saved lives already.

In 1999, the state installed six crisis hotline call boxes that connect with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay as soon as someone picks one up. A special ring tone in the call center alerts operators that a call is coming from the bridge, said Liza Cruz Cepeda, manager of gateway services at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

The center received a small number of calls last year, but in at least one, an operator was able to prevent the caller from jumping, she said.

A state trooper also patrols the bridge 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a quick response to potential suicide attempts, and troopers have been able to stop people from killing themselves, said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol. But Gaskins noted it can take several minutes to respond even if a call comes as soon as someone stops on the bridge.

"If someone really wants to do this, it takes two seconds to stop and jump," he said.

That point was reinforced by the case of a 43-year-old Safety Harbor housekeeper who drove to Skyway Bridge one night last month.

The woman had considered suicide before and had made statements that night that concerned her father, according to a Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's report. The father followed his daughter to the center span of the Skyway, where she got out of her car and jumped, the report says, apparently before the father had time to try to stop her.

He called 911 and her body was found in the water below.

The rise in suicides from the Skyway corresponds with a steady increase in the suicide rate across the United States and Florida.

According to a report released last summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate rose by 30 percent between 1999 and 2016, with increases seen across age, gender, race and ethnicity. Florida saw an increase of nearly 11 percent during that period.

The study noted that problems most frequently associated with suicide are life stressors involving work, finances, strained relationships, substance abuse and health issues. Mental health professionals and sociologists have cited the Great Recession, with its widespread layoffs and home foreclosures, as a factor in the increase.

The Tampa Bay Times obtained medical examiner reports for 15 of the 18 people who are confirmed to have died by suicide at the Skyway in 2018. They ranged in age from 18 to 67. Thirteen were men. At least half had a history of mental illness, depression, or both, the records show. Nearly all lived in or near the Tampa Bay area.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends installing barriers on tall bridges and buildings to discourage jumpers, said Dr. Andreas Pumariega, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Florida's College of Medicine, who has studied suicide.

News that the Transportation Department is installing technology beyond the callboxes is encouraging, Pumariega said.

"You can't rely on the person changing their mind or making a call," he said. "You should be looking to catch them in the act in some manner."

For Rivard, working to see this happen serves as a kind of therapy in the wake of his stepson's death.

"This is something you never heal from, you just have to find a way to cope," he said. "My coping is addressing the problem to start saving other people's lives."

If you're considering suicide or suspect someone you know might be, help is available by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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