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Eckerd College students found girl, 5, who was dropped off bridge by father

ST. PETERSBURG — From the moment that four Eckerd College students and a staff member piloted a 26-foot boat into Tampa Bay early Thursday, the team had one focus: Rescue the girl.

Shortly after midnight, the call came from Pinellas County 911 dispatch that help was needed for a water rescue. The trained student volunteers were contacted, so they could meet at a dock in the middle of the night.

Within an hour, the five aboard Eckerd's Rescue 6 found the girl in dark and choppy waters of the bay, east of the Dick Misener Bridge on the Sunshine Skyway approach, but not with the result they hoped for.

Phoebe Jonchuck, 5, was lifeless. It was unclear, police would later say, whether she was dead before her father, John Nicholas Jonchuck Jr., dropped her off the bridge shortly after midnight Thursday. About 3 a.m. the Eckerd team transferred her body to a Coast Guard team that also was present, and she was soon pronounced dead.

It was only later that anyone had time to reflect.

"Seeing that it is an deliberate act is kind of what sticks out," said Ryan Dilkey, coordinator for Eckerd's search team, who helped direct operations from land. "It is terribly unfortunate. It adds to the tragedy."

Because of the college's location on Tampa Bay and near the Sunshine Skyway, Eckerd and its volunteer student team play a key role in search and rescue operations, often recovering people who have jumped off the bridge. The team trains rigorously with well-defined protocols, and during operations like this one, there's no time to think of anything else, Dilkey said.

Emotions come later. Dilkey said he met the team after the search, but didn't talk extensively to the students. It was the middle of the night, and everyone was tired and needing rest.

However, after any operation like this, team members will debrief soon to analyze the effort, and they also will be encouraged to share their thoughts.

"It's just a terribly unfortunate situation for something like this to happen to somebody who didn't seemingly have any control over her situation... it's just terrible, a terrible tragedy," Dilkey said.