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How an Eckerd crew devised a search pattern for rescuing Skyway jumpers in Tampa Bay

Eckerd Search and Rescue team members Chelsea Duca, 20, and Matt Van Der Maelen, 22, make a run near the Skyway.
Published Jul. 26, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG

The call comes into the students' emergency radio and cellphones.

Someone has jumped from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Vital seconds are eroding. The Eckerd College Search and Rescue team scrambles.

If they get to the base of the bridge before other rescuers, they can employ a special search pattern developed on a whiteboard in their office three years ago. Powering back and forth in expanding parallel sweeps through the choppy waters of Tampa Bay, they are 50 percent more likely to find the jumper than other boats searching with more traditional methods, according to their coordinator, Ryan Dilkey.

"It's saving us fuel, it's saving us time, it's increasing our likelihood of finding a search target," he said.

Dilkey and two others devised the pattern three years ago. The esoteric science of search and rescue, while not particularly sexy, is potentially critical in finding people who jump from the signature Tampa Bay landmark.

More often than not, jumpers do not survive the nearly 200-foot drop from the bridge to the water. They suffer massive body trauma, either dying on impact or drowning after they hit, said William Pellan, director of forensic investigations at the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office. Sometimes the bodies float and are found easily. Sometimes they sink.

Dilkey, 39, estimates that Eckerd responds to one suicide attempt per month. His team has employed its specialized search pattern for more than two years but has never found someone alive. On Monday, they hauled aboard a 38-year-old woman, severely injured though breathing after a suicide attempt, but two people on water scooters had already located her by the time the Eckerd rescuers arrived.

Many factors about the harrowing jumps are similar. When a body hits the water below the Skyway, it begins to drift in a predictable way, outward from the bridge in whichever direction the tide and currents flow. Charts show where it might end up 30, 60 and 90 minutes after the fall — almost always within an easily identifiable cone.

Search boats often trace big, parallel lines of equal length stretching away from the bridge. Dilkey and his team noticed that such searches — which generally extend from pier to pier beneath the Skyway — mean that boats spend significant time outside the drift zone.

Crews following that pattern have about a 10 to 20 percent of passing a body; Eckerd's new model provides a 60 to 70 percent chance, Dilkey said.

It took about half a day to come up with the pattern. Dilkey worked with two other Eckerd graduates, Emily Reichert and M. Cayman Brownfield. After drawing the model, he said, he ran calculations. "I didn't think it was right. I went back and did the math again."

The Eckerd crew spent several days putting dummies into the water, setting them out to drift at strong tides and slack tides. They tracked positions using GPS. It all checked out.

Dilkey said they implemented the new search immediately. Of the next four jumpers, he said, Eckerd searchers found three. A full sweep involves a boat going about 11 mph for roughly an hour and 20 minutes.

They presented their findings to the U.S. Coast Guard and learned that their pattern is nearly a replica of the common course for skimming and containing oil spills. They also showed it to various rescue and law enforcement agencies around Tampa Bay, but not every crew can adopt it, Dilkey said.

Many agencies respond to jumper calls, including sheriff's offices from the three counties around the bay, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Coast Guard. Learning to drive the successively larger lines takes time, and some boats only have one or two rescuers aboard, Dilkey said. Each Eckerd crew has four to five people, allowing some to steer while others search.

Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Rosen said his agency has a modeling program that devises search patterns based on real-time tidal data. He said the Eckerd team is among the best civilian search outfits he has seen in his 22 years with the Coast Guard.

"They're a big reason that Tampa Bay has such good response to not only bridge jumpers but anytime folks are distressed out there," Rosen said.

Eckerd hopes its model has applications across the country. "It's definitely really cool when you have the numbers to back it up," said Jordan Kuperberg, 23, a staff instructor.

Dilkey said he would like officials to test the pattern at the George Washington Bridge in New York and the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

They know, especially with a bridge as high as the Skyway, that improved efficiency might not translate to more saved lives. But just finding a person can provide closure to a family.

"Even when we become certain that it's not a life-saving endeavor," Dilkey said, "there are other lives that are affected by this."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

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