Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, resources are available to help. Please see the information at the end of this story.
ST. PETERSBURG — One Thursday afternoon in January, a Road Ranger spotted a semitrailer parked on the shoulder at the top of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
The semi driver, a 63-year-old Clearwater man, told the Road Ranger the truck was acting funny, according to a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office report. Then, he suddenly tried to climb over the barrier wall as if to jump. The Road Ranger grabbed the man, who said he was “just joking,” but a moment later, as a Florida Highway Patrol trooper arrived, the truck driver tried to jump again. The Road Ranger grabbed his flannel jacket.
“I got him,” the Road Ranger told the trooper. But as the trooper approached to help, the trucker slipped from the Ranger’s grip and fell to his death.
It was the first Skyway suicide of 2021. By July in a typical year, several more people would have died by jumping from the iconic bridge, which at its apex soars over Tampa Bay at nearly 200 feet. But so far, according to the Highway Patrol, the trucker’s death is the only one.
Officials are giving some credit to the recently completed suicide prevention barrier, which was under construction for about five months, for the drop in numbers.
“It’s definitely a positive trend and we hope it continues,” said Jim Jacobsen, district structures maintenance engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation.
On Jan. 15, the day after the truck driver’s death, Tarpon Springs-based Southern Road and Bridge arrived at the bridge to begin installing the barrier — stainless steel netting attached to posts that extend straight up from the existing barrier wall. The contractor finished the project in late June, on time and about $40,000 over the $3.41 million budget, Jacobsen said.
The project’s completion marks what officials hope is a new era for a bridge that has consistently ranked among the deadliest in the nation for suicides since the current structure opened in 1987. For the past decade, the bridge has averaged about one suicide a month. In 2018, the number jumped to a record 18.
The Tampa Bay Times first reported in January 2020 that the department had decided to install a barrier sought for decades by some public officials and loved ones of suicide victims. The diamond-patterned steel netting resembles chicken wire, creating an obstacle nearly 11 feet high and, officials said, difficult to climb. The netting extends along on the northbound and southbound spans to a point where the bridge is roughly 50 feet above the water.
Officials said the design is lightweight and doesn’t add wind resistance or obstruct the sweeping views.
The Transportation Department awarded the job to Southern Road and Bridge in March 2020 and approved a completion date last November. But the pandemic delayed the delivery of materials from overseas, pushing back the start date.
Finally, in January, the contractor arrived on site. Workers first bored holes in the outer barrier wall to attach the vertical supports for the netting. The supports started going up by March, the netting by April.
Crews worked from the 12-foot-wide shoulder of the bridge as traffic zoomed by, avoiding the need to close lanes. There were no incidents during construction and Mother Nature mostly cooperated, Jacobsen said.
Before the project got underway, Jacobsen said the marine-grade netting would be almost invisible to motorists speeding by at 65 mph.
“It’s what we anticipated,” he said this week. “It really disappears against the sky and water.”
In addition to the trucker’s suicide in January, the Highway Patrol has logged five suicide attempts from the bridge this year, said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, an agency spokesman. In February, a Bradenton teen jumped and reportedly survived. Gaskins said he wasn’t aware of any attempt calls involving someone trying to scale the new barrier.
For the time being, the Transportation Department will continue to contract with the Highway Patrol to have troopers assigned to the bridge for rapid response to suspected suicide attempts, department spokesperson Kris Carson. Officials hope the barrier will pose enough of a deterrent to keep people from trying, but if they do, it gives troopers more time to reach them.
Six phones that connect to counselors at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay were installed in 1999 at the top of the bridge and will remain in place for now.
“We’re going to monitor it over time and if they become obsolete and are never used, then we can look at removing them,” Jacobsen said.
Some online commenters have called the barrier an ugly waste of money.
“I know it’s not going to stop them!” Facebook user Carolyn Provenzano posted on the page of skywaybridge.com, a website that has tracked Skyway suicide activity since 1998. “So now we have a ugly fence on a beautiful bridge ... Address the lack of mental health care in Florida!!!”
“It’s like putting a big ugly bandaid on a big wound and expecting it to stop the bleeding,” commenter Ashley Paul said. “If they want to end it, they will find a way.”
Other commenters noted the barrier does not obstruct the bridge’s breathtaking views and is worth the cost if it saves just one life.
”When someone is actively suicidal, the more barriers (literally and figuratively speaking) in place, the harder it is for them to follow through,” wrote Tiff McClanathan, who said she is a mental health and substance use therapist. “Will it deter 100% of suicidal people? No. Will it save more lives than if this barrier wasn’t in place? Absolutely.”
Richard Fortner surmised that the construction activity and associated law enforcement presence helped reduce the number of suicide attempts. “Now that the fence is complete and all have gone home, we will now get to see how well it works,” he wrote.
Removing the bridge as an option for suicidal people is progress, but only one step in addressing a national suicide epidemic, Clara Reynolds, Crisis Center of Tampa Bay executive director, told the Times earlier this year. Also key is urging people to seek treatment and making sure treatment is available, Reynolds said.
Gary King of Gulfport said completion of the barrier brings him waves of different emotions.
King said he’s grateful the state finally took action, but it was too late for his only child, 40-year-old Jason King, who jumped from the Skyway in 2012. The elder King said the fencing will bring peace of mind to him and others who’ve lost a loved one there because they know the numbers won’t grow.
“I can’t turn back the clock,” he said. “I can’t change anything, but I know that the jump protection will emotionally help a lot of people.”
Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org, or call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay by dialing 2-1-1.