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Sunshine Skyway suicide ends remarkable 19-month run without one

Tuesday’s suicide was the first since April 2022, a remarkable stretch for a bridge that averaged about one per month before fencing was installed in 2021.
 
Traffic streams southbound over the Sunshine Skyway bridge in July 2021, shortly after suicide prevention fencing was completed. The Skyway on Tuesday saw its first suicide in 19 months, a remarkable stretch for a bridge that had averaged about one suicide per month before the fencing was erected.
Traffic streams southbound over the Sunshine Skyway bridge in July 2021, shortly after suicide prevention fencing was completed. The Skyway on Tuesday saw its first suicide in 19 months, a remarkable stretch for a bridge that had averaged about one suicide per month before the fencing was erected. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 30, 2023|Updated Dec. 1, 2023

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.

A man jumped to his death from the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway bridge on Tuesday, the first suicide from the bridge in 19 months, according to state data.

That is likely the longest period of time without a suicide on the bridge since the existing span opened in 1987. The remarkable stretch appears to be more evidence that fencing erected two years ago is working to reduce suicides on a bridge that previously averaged about one per month, making it one of the country’s deadliest.

“The system has performed as anticipated with very little maintenance needed,” Kris Carson, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Transportation, said Wednesday in an email in response to questions from the Tampa Bay Times.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the last suicide on the bridge before Tuesday’s incident was on April 24, 2022. Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesperson for the agency, could not confirm Wednesday that the 19-month stretch was the longest without a suicide since 1987.

But before the fencing was erected, the Skyway typically saw about a dozen suicides each calendar year. In 2018, the number jumped to 18, a record.

In 2021, when the fencing was erected, there were two suicides. There were also two in 2022.

Related: Skyway bridge suicide barrier may finally stop the ripples of loss

Highway Patrol call data indicates the number of attempted suicides on the bridge may also be trending downward.

Most years before the fencing was installed, the attempted suicide calls reached double digits. The agency responded to 12 attempted suicide calls in 2021, but just five in 2022 and three so far this year.

Officials have acknowledged that the fencing is difficult but not impossible to climb. The diamond-patterned steel netting, attached to poles that extend vertically from the concrete barrier wall, resembles chicken wire, creating an obstacle nearly 11 feet high. The netting extends along the northbound and southbound spans to a point where the bridge is roughly 50 feet above the water.

The goal was to prevent some people from trying to jump at all and at least slow down people who did try, giving first responders more time to arrive and try to intervene. Previously, only the waist-high barrier wall stood between the bridge deck, which at its highest point soars nearly 200 feet over Tampa Bay, and the water below.

The man who jumped Tuesday apparently was able to make it over the fencing before first responders could arrive and try to intervene.

Florida Highway Patrol Sergeant Steve Gaskins stands at the peak on the southbound shoulder of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in July 2021, shortly after the suicide prevention fencing, seen behind him, was completed. Gaskins is standing near one of the six call boxes on the bridge that connect directly to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
Florida Highway Patrol Sergeant Steve Gaskins stands at the peak on the southbound shoulder of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in July 2021, shortly after the suicide prevention fencing, seen behind him, was completed. Gaskins is standing near one of the six call boxes on the bridge that connect directly to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office received calls about 3:40 p.m. for reports of a suspicious man on the bridge, according to the sheriff’s office. The Florida Highway Patrol was the first to arrive in response to the call. A witness told troopers that a man got out of his vehicle, climbed the fencing on the northbound span and jumped, according to the sheriff’s office.

Marine units from the Hillsborough and Manatee sheriff’s offices responded, and the Manatee unit found the body of a man matching the description of the person who jumped.

The Hillsborough sheriff’s office continued to investigate the incident on Wednesday.

A state contractor started work on the fencing in January 2021 and completed the project in June of that year, on time and about $40,000 over the $3.41 million budget.

Carson, the transportation department spokesperson, said the cost of routine maintenance of the fencing is included in the department’s overall annual maintenance budget for the Skyway, and so far there have been no additional costs beyond that.

Some critics of the fencing called it an ugly waste of money and claimed that people seeking to die by suicide would climb the fence or simply choose another method. But research has shown that people at immediate risk for suicide often don’t try using another method if their preferred method is not available, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Along with making sure firearms and medications are not accessible, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center includes bridge barriers on its list of strategies to reduce the risk of suicide.

Carson said the six call boxes installed on the Skyway in 1999 that connect directly to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay will remain in place. And before the fencing was built, the state transportation department installed a system that detects and alerts officials to parked vehicles and pedestrians on the bridge to reduce response times.

“Our position is that anything that prevents even one suicide is a positive step,” Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Amanda Granit said in an email. “It does seem these fences are a deterrent, which is great. We also want to remind people that suicide is never the solution. We would urge people to reach out to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at 211, 24/7.”

Need help?

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org, or call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay by dialing 2-1-1.