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Deadly jumps are darker side of Sunshine Skyway bridge

Published:   |   Updated: March 22, 2013 at 07:40 PM

The Sunshine Skyway bridge rises gracefully over the water and returns gently to the land, a majestic concrete arch held aloft with golden rays of steel.

Travel magazines and car commercials feature Tampa Bay's breathtaking gateway.

But the span is also one of the region's deadliest stretches of road - because of suicides, not traffic crashes.

More people come here to end their lives than anywhere in Florida, fueling a morbid fascination that has given rise to a new documentary and an irreverent Web site.

Steven Picciuto leaped in September, ending a life tangled in addiction and depression.

"He always talked about jumping off that bridge," said his former wife, Alyson.

At least 135 people have jumped from the Sunshine Skyway since the existing bridge opened in 1987. Only three bridges are known to top that: the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Aurora Bridge in Seattle and the San Diego-Coronado Bridge.

About nine people a year jumped from the Sunshine Skyway in the past 10 years, according to data compiled by The Tampa Tribune. Nearly all of them died. As few as four people jumped in 2004, as many as 13 in 1999.

Two people have jumped this year. One died; one survived.

Often, those who choose suicide don't think about the questions and heartache they will leave behind, experts say. People who choose jumping to end their lives are often self-centered and possess a sense of grandeur.

"You are on stage," said Jerald Ratner, a forensic psychiatrist from Cape Coral. "It symbolizes a glorification of suicide. It's an act you want people to notice."

People who jump often imagine an end that is certain, instant and painless. They usually step off the Skyway during the day. They seldom leave a note.

But if they're seeking to wrap themselves in the majesty of the landmark, in a cathartic collision of body and water, in a warm entry to the afterlife, they may face a painful disappointment.

Only the lucky ones die quickly.

Taking preventive measures

The Sunshine Skyway is Florida's highest span, carrying an average of 51,000 vehicles a day nearly 200 feet above the water - or two-thirds the length of a football field - as it links the north and south sides of Tampa Bay.

The new bridge was built after a freighter slammed into a support on the old bridge 29 years ago this month, sending cars and a bus plunging into the shipping channel below. Thirty-five people died.

It was no secret the old bridge was attractive to people bent on suicide. Fifty-five jumped from it between 1958 and 1986, according to Tribune data.

Former Gov. Bob Graham was instrumental in getting the new bridge designed and built. The goal was to make it safer for motorists and maritime vessels, he said.

Graham was not surprised suicides continued when the new bridge opened in April 1987.

"Tall structures including bridges have been an attraction for people in the most extreme mental condition, so it is tragic but not unexpected that the Sunshine Skyway has seen its share of suicides," he said in an e-mail interview.

In 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush asked the state Department of Transportation to consider walls or netting to help prevent people from jumping.

Possible fixes proved unrealistic because of wind resistance and the multimillion-dollar price tag. The nets also raised concerns about entangling rare birds.

Instead, the state opted for round-the-clock patrols and six solar-powered phones wired to a crisis hot line. A special ring alerts counselors to the urgency.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay has documented 23 calls from the phones on the bridge since 1999. Every caller was persuaded not to jump, said Jennifer Durgee, a crisis center spokeswoman.

The Sunshine Skyway has no pedestrian walkway or wide area at the top to pull over. A motorist pays a dollar at a toll plaza to drive over the bridge, and to stop safely, must pull into a hazard lane barely wider than a pickup.

A remote video camera would likely catch the illegal stop. A Florida Highway Patrol trooper along the five-mile span would head to the spot, usually arriving within minutes. The Florida Department of Transportation monitors the cameras.

But if no one intervenes in time and the motorist jumps to his death, a quirk in political boundaries creates a logistical issue.

The bridge connects St. Petersburg in Pinellas County and Terra Ceia in Manatee County. The top of the span, however, is in a watery finger of Hillsborough County.

Hillsborough law enforcement and medical examiner's staff are called to investigate most suicides, those where a witness sees the leap from the top of the span.

If there are no witnesses and the body surfaces in Pinellas County, Pinellas takes on the investigation and autopsy. If the body is found in Manatee, authorities there handle it.

Most bodies are recovered.

A documentary, Web site

Sean Michael Davis was on the bridge hauling a load of furniture to his new home on Snead Island in Palmetto when he saw someone leap from the bridge last year.

His truck crested the span in time to see a human form vanish from the edge of the bridge.

"I couldn't do anything," said Davis, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who also works with Fox TV's "Cops."

He pulled over and called 911.

It had never occurred to him that the bridge might be a prominent place for people to end their lives.

He read what he could find about the bridge and suicides, and decided to make a documentary. He is nearly finished filming. His goal is to prevent suicides.

"I need to show people the pain and the humiliation for their family and loved ones, the mass of human emotion," Davis said.

His research took him to JumperPool.com, a Web site where visitors are greeted by the sound of a splash. The home page warns of "politically incorrect" material.

Inside the site, visitors find a list of incidents, grisly details from medical examiner reports and the feature that gives the site its name: a chance to guess when the next person will jump. Bonus questions include gender and how long it will take to recover the body.

There is also a forum for comments. For 10 years, the forum has drawn angry critics, some of whom identify themselves as victims' relatives, but also people talking openly about the pain of suicide's aftermath.

One horrific account comes from a man who said he was fishing beneath the Skyway when he saw someone smash into the water 20 yards from his boat. Slowed by anchor problems, the fisherman said, it took him several minutes to reach the spot.

He said he felt guilty he couldn't save the person.

JumperPool.com visitors left messages urging him not to feel responsible.

The founder of the site declined in an e-mail to be interviewed on the record or to identify himself. He said his motive is to spook would-be jumpers by showing the ghastly way in which people die and the devastation inflicted on the loved ones they leave behind.

Similarities and differences

Fifty percent more people die by suicide than by homicide nationwide, a couple thousand of them each year in Florida.

According to the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition, 2,570 Floridians killed themselves in 2007.

Those who choose the Sunshine Skyway are overwhelmingly male and white, generally in their 30s and early 40s.

Distinctions fade from there. Those who jump include professionals and the unemployed, people who are married, single, rich and poor.

In 1993, a 15-year-old boy and his 16-year-old girlfriend made a suicide pact. They took a cab to the top of the bridge, used lipstick to scrawl a message on the concrete and jumped.

Within the past year, a 22-year-old student from Sarasota jumped, reportedly angry that his girlfriend had cheated on him.

The most recent victim, a 91-year-old Tampa man, was depressed about his declining health.

Those who jump often leave hints of their troubles in the cars they leave parked - antidepressants, phone numbers of mental health professionals, cell phones with unread text messages from loved ones.

Once they leap, the next few seconds are sheer acceleration.

One ...

Two ...

Three ...

Fo ...

Bodies are mangled. Clothes are often ripped off. Skulls are smashed. Bones are crushed. Teeth shattered. The impact of hitting the water at 75 mph causes organs to rip loose, butchered in the rib cage.

The impact after falling nearly 200 feet is like hitting concrete.

For some, though, hitting the water only begins the dying process. They perish from drowning, according to medical examiner records.

Witnesses who have tried to resuscitate jumpers described compressing a chest that gave way like a wet pillow.

Occasionally, someone survives.

Dean Konstantinovic leaped in 1993, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He died last year from pneumonia - 15 years after the jump.

The ripples from Picciuto's jump haven't stopped spreading.

Picciuto, 32, pulled his car into the hazard lane of the bridge about lunchtime one day in September.

Traffic whooshed by. A diary sat by his side.

He stepped from the car and went over the barrier.

He and his wife, Alyson, had been separated about two years.

His addiction to alcohol and drugs had wrung out the last of her patience.

They talked often, and he remained a doting father to their two children.

"His pain is over, but our pain has just started," Alyson said.

"It's like breaking a glass, with a million pieces going everywhere. You can never pick up all the pieces, all the shards."

Editor's note: The names of suicide victims included in this story are used with the permission of their families.

Reporter Baird Helgeson can be reached at (813) 259-7668.