The woman clearly meant to die. She paused on the railing atop the Sunshine Skyway Bridge -- the high, glittering span that has become the second most deadly bridge for suicides in the country -- lifted both arms in the air and did a swan dive into Tampa Bay.
Below, in their 21-foot fishing boat, Robert Madill and his teenage son, Michael, watched in disbelief. Despite the bridge's growing reputation as a magnet for the desperate and despondent, this was not what they expected on a bright Sunday morning -- nor did they expect to participate in a rescue that, as a large freighter bore down on the screaming woman, would endanger their own lives as well.
"I was close enough to see her face all the way down," said Madill, 42, a Tampa-area business owner, about the image that still haunts him. "She was looking down at the water. I followed her all the way down, looking at her face. I think that was the most horrifying thing."
The woman, a 31-year-old St. Petersburg resident, survived the Jan. 27 incident against all odds, becoming only the sixth person to live after jumping from the nearly 200-foot-high bridge -- the equivalent of a 20-story building. But the incident illustrated once again how those determined to take their lives are continually drawn to this graceful structure -- despite the installation of suicide hot lines on the bridge and constant patrolling by Florida Highway Patrol officers, who have managed to talk down a number of would-be jumpers.
"Bridges, historically, have been suicide places," said Lt. Rod Reder of the Hillsborough County sheriff's office, trying to explain the deadly attraction of the Skyway. "There's easy access, it's a long drop, it's 99 percent fatal. There's no turning back once you make that decision."
San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is the undisputed national leader in such suicides; more than 1,200 people have jumped to their deaths from the span since it opened more than 60 years ago. But in recent years, the increasing number of jumpers from the Skyway -- more than 40 suicides in the past five years, including highs of 12 in 1998 and 12 again in 1999 -- has become a disturbing issue to law enforcement and highway officials, and politicians such as Gov. Jeb Bush (R).
Bush, who has taken an active interest in the bridge, has pushed for the installation of fences or safety netting. But the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) has deemed the measures ineffective and too costly. It would take an estimated $19 million to erect the necessary 17-foot-tall fence, said Marian Pscion, a DOT spokeswoman.
"We don't know if netting is a good idea. If someone fell into the netting, we don't know what that would do to a person," said Pscion, adding that anything added to the bridge could affect critical bridge stress factors such as wind. "The crisis phones and the highway patrol are good deterrents. We don't know if you can deter everything."
The four-mile bridge, whose majestic sweep has made it a tourist attraction, was built because of a tragedy. In May 1980, a freighter, the Summit Venture, rammed into a pylon of the old Tampa Bay bridge, sending a portion of the span into the bay, along with eight vehicles, including a bus. Thirty-five people were killed.
When the new Skyway, which towered high above the old version, opened in 1987, it included safety features to protect it from future impacts. They included a larger clearance space under the main shipping span and protective bumpers built around the center portion. But within a few years, it become clear that the bridge was taking on a different kind of deadly reputation because of the suicides and suicide attempts that occurred there.
In 1998, the bridge received a storm of media attention after a man plunged off it with his Rottweiler; the man died, but the dog survived, and much of the subsequent news coverage seemed to sympathize more with the canine victim than the human one. Two years ago, Reder said, high winds blew a woman sideways, cushioning the impact of her fall, when she tried to kill herself after fatally shooting her ex-husband and pistol-whipping his new wife. (She survived and was sentenced to prison.) Last year, 36-year-old Hanns Jones, depressed over financial and romantic troubles, survived a jump after, he said, an image of his 18-month-old son flashed before his eyes.
"I felt life was done with me," he told the Associated Press. "I was beyond fear. [But] as I got closer to the bottom, I had the feeling this was a bad idea."
Jones was able to swim nearly half the length of a football field to cling to a bridge pylon, despite a broken neck, ruptured spleen and collapsed lung.
To stem the tide of deaths, six telephones linked to counselors at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay were installed on the bridge in 1999, the only phones of their kind in the country. The next year, the Florida Highway Patrol began assigning troopers to the bridge full time. Both measures have proven effective, officials said.
"There are statistics that say that 80 percent of the people who commit suicide don't mean to die," said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman with the crisis center. She said that the center's counselors have stopped 17 people from jumping from the Skyway since the phones were installed 2 1/2 years ago.
Troopers also have helped to talk down several potential suicides. "Basically, the protocol is to keep them calm and talk to them, try to hold them at bay until we can get a crisis team," said Lt. Sterling King of the state highway patrol. "We try to keep it low-key. We really don't want to publicize it too much -- we don't want to give people the idea to go there."
The St. Petersburg woman who went there Jan. 27 was immaculately dressed, in a mauve-colored dress and high heels. She landed 30 feet in front of Madill's boat. A massive freighter was coming straight at her from about 400 feet away.
"The Coast Guard told me later they might not have done what I did, but I just reacted," Madill said. "We were in the middle of the channel, she popped up screaming. I'm driving the boat, and my son looped the rope and tossed it over her head and she caught it. I gunned it and I slid over and the freighter slid over." About 50 feet separated the two vessels at their closest point, he said.
Another boat carrying three other fishermen came alongside, and those men were able to pull the woman from the water. Amazingly, the woman -- whose name has not been made public -- was not seriously injured.
"I didn't do anything more than what I hope somebody would do for me," said Madill, describing his composed son Michael, 17, as the true hero. "The whole thing was over in five minutes. To start second-guessing, you can't do it. I did what I thought needed to be done -- we saved her. I believe it was the right thing. Her family believes it was the right thing."