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 — Driving north across the Sunshine Skyway one night in January, a motorist spotted a car on the shoulder near the peak of the bridge.
As he passed the parked Volkswagen with its hazard lights flashing, the motorist saw someone straddling the top of the steel fencing meant to deter people from jumping. The witness called 911 but the person jumped to his death before help arrived. He was later identified as a 75-year-old Bradenton resident.
The man’s death marked a grim milestone: the first suicide on the Skyway since the steel mesh fencing was completed at the end of June 2021. A second suicide came in late April.
So far, though, those are the only confirmed suicides from the bridge in the last 12 months, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Before the barrier was built, about one person a month died by jumping from the bridge. In 2018, 18 died — a record.
State officials said the statistics show the fence is working as planned, significantly reducing the number of suicides from a bridge that has consistently ranked among the deadliest in the nation for suicides.
“The fencing has been an effective deterrent to those wishing to harm themselves along the iconic span,” said Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins.
Incidents on the Skyway in the last year show how the fencing factored in suicide threats — and how trying to keep people from jumping is still part of the job for first responders.
Effective, not foolproof
Transportation Department officials never claimed the barrier would be 100% effective at stopping people from jumping from the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
It’s difficult to know if someone’s thwarted efforts to take their own life by jumping means that they are still alive today. But the changes to the bridge were meant to make it harder for people to die so publicly and to potentially have a change of heart. Officials said the netting and other safety measures put in place also have improved the chances that first responders can arrive in time to intervene. Previously, only a waist-high concrete wall stood between the bridge deck, which at its highest point soars nearly 200 feet over Tampa Bay.
Tarpon Springs-based Southern Road and Bridge in January 2021 began installing the barrier — stainless steel netting rising above the existing wall. The diamond-patterned netting resembles chicken wire and creates an obstacle nearly 11 feet high. The fencing extends across a roughly mile-and-a-half stretch of the bridge at its highest and most dangerous points.
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The contractor finished the project in late June 2021. It was on time and about $40,000 over the $3.41 million budget. Critics called the fencing an ugly waste of money and argued that people who were determined enough to jump would get over the fence or find another way to end their lives.
In 2021, just one person jumped from the bridge and died — and that happened shortly before the contractor started construction on the barrier. Some observers surmised that the near-daily presence of the construction crews during the first half of the year warded off potential jumpers.
In the 12 months since the barrier was finished, the Highway Patrol logged eight calls involving someone who was intercepted before they could jump, agency data shows. There was an average of 11 such calls each year between 2016 and 2021.
Among the first to climb the fencing after it was completed was a 48-year-old Tampa woman who said she did so, in part, to prove that it could be done, according to a Highway Patrol incident report. She was straddling the fence along the southbound lanes one day in early August when Cpl. Tabarie Sullivan arrived.
Sullivan is among the troopers who patrol the Skyway and rush to the scene of suspected suicide-related calls. In a 2021 Tampa Bay Times story published as construction on the fencing was starting, Sullivan said he’d intercepted about 10 people in the three years he’d been working the Skyway detail. He hoped the barrier would reduce the frequency of suicide calls and visits to family members to deliver news of their loved one’s death.
That August day, Sullivan spoke with the woman as she sat atop the fencing, at one point dangling both legs over the water. She said she was tired of racists and being the target of discrimination, Sullivan wrote in the report, and also said she climbed the fence “to prove to us that the new fencing did not work.”
After about 15 minutes, the woman agreed to come down to get help and was taken into protective custody under Florida’s Baker Act.
A similar incident happened on the evening of Jan. 24 when a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office sergeant spotted a man straddling the fencing along the southbound lanes.
The man posted about the incident on Facebook afterward but later removed the post. The Times recently reached him and agreed to withhold his last name to protect his privacy.
The man, a 48-year-old St. Petersburg business owner named Chris, said he woke up happy that day but when he extended an open invitation on Facebook for friends to meet him for dinner and drinks, no one replied. An overwhelming sense of loneliness gripped him, he said, and he got drunk on vodka. He said he knew the fencing had been erected on the Skyway but decided to go there anyway and jump. He posted his plan on Facebook, drawing alarmed pleas from friends.
“It was almost like I was in some kind of weird trance,” he recalled. “I don’t even know how to describe what got me there, but once I was on my way, there was no stopping me.”
He said he had a sense that he would be OK even if he jumped, though he said he realizes now that was delusional. People who jump from the top of the span rarely survive.
Chris parked his pickup on the southbound shoulder and climbed the fencing. He remembers the moon shining brightly and a stiff wind buffeting him as he straddled the barrier.
He said he was up on the fence for less than a minute when a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy saw him and stopped.
The deputy, Sgt. Mitchell Grissinger, wrote in an incident report that he was able to quickly build a rapport with Chris but when the deputy moved closer, Chris swung his other leg over the top of the fencing.
“So at that point, now I’m looking straight down at the water, and I’m sitting on a wire,” he recalled.
Eventually, Grissinger was able to persuade Chris to come down. Once on the pavement, Chris walked over to the sergeant and extended his hand.
“I shook (his) hand and continued talking with him trying to learn how he ended up in this position,” Grissinger wrote. “This was also a way to keep him calm until other deputies were able to arrive on scene.”
Chris was taken into protective custody and admitted to a local mental health facility for evaluation.
In May, a woman jumped from the southbound span at the point where the fencing begins. She survived and was pulled to safety.
‘A huge relief’
The first post-construction suicide — the 75-year-old Bradenton man — happened six days later, on Jan. 30. Authorities found a suicide note in the man’s car and a fisherman discovered his body the next day near Egmont Key, about 5 miles from the bridge, according to a report by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction over the center span.
In late April, a 47-year-old Tampa man jumped and died, according to a Sheriff’s Office report.
Family members of each man declined to comment for this story.
The Florida Department of Transportation “is pleased the fencing on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is proving to be an effective suicide deterrent,” spokesperson Kris Carson said in an email.
“Along with the crisis phones which connect to suicide prevention staff, Florida Highway Patrol coverage, and cameras all along the bridge, these items are making a difference,” Carson said.
Carson noted the department also has installed technology that detects stopped vehicles and pedestrians on the bridge to reduce response times.
The steep drop in deaths from the bridge came as welcome news to the staff at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, said executive director Clara Reynolds.
“Just a huge relief,” Reynolds said.
The Crisis Center answers when someone on the bridge picks up one of the six crisis phones that were installed in 1999. According to the center, it received one call from the bridge in the last year.
Reynolds emphasized that taking away a means to die by suicide doesn’t get at the root cause: despondent people who feel hopeless and don’t see another way.
“If we can save one life, isn’t it worth it?” Reynolds said. “And I just have to continue to believe that there is still plenty of opportunity for us to get the message out that there’s always somebody who wants to hear what you’re going through and whose job it is to listen and to make sure that you know that you’re not facing any crisis alone.”
Chris, the man who nearly jumped, said he’s doing better now. He’s still angry at himself for not considering his elderly mother as he contemplated ending his life.
“If I had jumped that night, it would have not only killed me, it would have killed her,” he said.
While he was able to climb the fencing, he said he’s glad it’s there. He wonders if maybe it saved him, too, by slowing him down that night.
“If it’s enough to save one, two, five lives a year,” he said, “then I think it’s done its job.”
Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org, or call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay by dialing 211.