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.
On a sunny August evening, Mitchell Martin parked a Chevy pickup on the shoulder at the top of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
The 25-year-old Martin was living with his girlfriend and her mother in Lake Worth, on Florida’s Atlantic coast some 200 miles away. He had borrowed the mother’s truck and driven across the state to one of Tampa Bay’s most recognizable landmarks.
It’s unclear how long he sat inside the truck, but after he got out, he didn’t linger. Someone in a passing car saw Martin walk to the waist-high concrete barrier wall and jump.
Martin’s plunge triggered a grim process that has played out hundreds of times since the Skyway opened more than three decades ago.
The Florida Highway Patrol and Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation. A fire rescue boat set off to recover the body. Authorities called loved ones, then visited Martin’s mother in Texas to make the official notification of his death.
The Skyway ranks among the worst bridges in the nation for suicides. Now, a project designed to prevent them is finally underway.
A contractor for the Florida Department of Transportation has started work to install steel netting along a roughly mile-and-a-half stretch of the bridge. Officials expect the $3.4 million project to be complete by summer, after a delay blamed on the pandemic.
If successful, the barrier also will stop the waves of impact that ripple from each jump. Witnesses are haunted by seeing people leap from the bridge or crash into Tampa Bay below. First responders collect broken bodies from the water. Loved ones mourn and wonder why the state hasn’t done more to keep people from jumping.
“I am so glad that it’s going up, and I wish it would have been up a lot sooner,” said Megan Martin, Mitchell’s sister. “This pain, this grief, this loss, I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.”
Jeb Bush hears calls for action
The bridge connects Pinellas and Manatee counties and has attracted people bent on suicide since the 1960s, when a previous Sunshine Skyway spanned Tampa Bay. Records show suicides began to increase after the current bridge, with its yellow steel cables forming twin triangles visible for miles, opened in 1987.
As the death toll mounted, calls grew louder for the state to take action.
Transportation officials gave various reasons why a vertical barrier or horizontal netting under the bridge would cause problems. They would add weight and wind resistance and block the boom trucks used to inspect and repair the underside of the bridge. They would mar the minimalist aesthetics of a bridge that is as beautiful as it is deadly.
After nearly two dozen suicides in 1998 and 1999, then-Gov. Jeb Bush asked state transportation officials to consider safety nets or fences. In a recent email to the Tampa Bay Times, Bush said he got involved at the request of the late Barbara Wilcox, then chairwoman of the board of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
“I recall we placed several phones on the bridge, and it had a positive impact,” Bush said.
The six phones, installed in 1999, connected directly to the Crisis Center’s suicide hotline. Later, transportation officials contracted with the Highway Patrol to increase patrols on the bridge. Troopers rush to the top of the bridge when staffers monitoring traffic cameras spot someone who appears about to jump.
Those measures worked to some degree.
But Highway Patrol records show more than 250 people have died since 1987 by jumping from the bridge, officially known as the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway after the former Florida governor and U.S. senator. The number of suicides and saves each year has generally trended upward, especially in the last decade. The year 2018 saw a record 18 suicides.
Many more people have been intercepted over the years by law enforcement officers who arrive in time.
Highway Patrol Cpl. Tabarie Sullivan remembers both kinds of calls.
Saves and misses at 200 feet
On a clear day in January 2019, Sullivan arrived at the top of the bridge to find a shirtless man sitting on the barrier, one leg dangling over the water some 200 feet below. He wore a ball cap and peered at Sullivan through wraparound sunglasses.
A 28-year-old traffic homicide investigator, Sullivan volunteers for the Skyway patrol. He knew he’d be responding to calls like this one, trying to stop someone before they jump.
He asked the man not to do it, told him he had more to live for. No, I don’t, the man replied. He said an injunction was keeping him from his wife and kids. He said he had accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior and was prepared to die.
Sullivan thought to himself, I cannot let that happen.
A few minutes later, when the man swung his dangling leg back onto the road, Sullivan made a move, jumping on him and pinning him to the pavement. The man was later taken into protective custody under the state’s Baker Act.
Before dawn on another shift, Sullivan responded to a call about an abandoned vehicle near the top of the bridge and spotted a woman walking on the shoulder. When the woman saw Sullivan, she started running toward the top.
Sullivan chased and tackled her. She began to sob as traffic roared by them in the darkness.
“I just held on for dear life until other responding units could arrive,” he recalled.
Sullivan said he has intercepted about 10 people since he started working the Skyway detail about three years ago.
“It takes a lot out of you mentally,” he said. “When I come into contact with someone who decides to hold on just a little longer, there’s no better feeling than that, to be able to get them help.”
In other cases, Sullivan and his colleagues arrive too late. They find an empty car, sometimes with a note inside. Troopers call for search and rescue boats. They reach out to friends and family, starting an investigation that usually is turned over to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction.
Sullivan said he’s glad the barrier is going up.
“If it saves lives, that means fewer loved ones I’m contacting, delivering the worst of the worst news.”
A fisherman’s life is changed
Some days, Andrew Kindt feels a pull to the water. Aug. 3, 2020, was one of those days.
The sun was shining, but the winds were up on Tampa Bay, making for less than ideal boating conditions. Kindt’s wife, Margarita, suggested he stay home.
He’s not sure why, but he felt compelled to go.
A 41-year-old cardiac dialysis nurse, Kindt grew up boating and fishing in the Skyway’s shadow. As a kid, he and his friends rode their bikes on the bridge while it was still under construction.
Kindt knew the Skyway was a suicide magnet, but he didn’t like the idea of a fence or net. He didn’t want something that blocked the view from the bridge or took away from its distinctive appearance. He figured if someone was determined to die, they’d find a way if they didn’t get professional help, as he did for his own depression.
On that August day, Kindt considered bringing his 13-year-old daughter but decided to take only his shepherd-hound mix, Koogie. He launched his 18-foot Shallow Sport flats boat from Maximo Park, near the Skyway’s northern approach, and motored toward the bridge.
Kindt was fishing from the back of the boat as it bobbed under the bridge when he heard a scream and then a noise “like a bomb going off next to me.”
He turned in time to see something hit the water about 50 feet away, creating a splash that shot high into the air. Moments later, he realized what had happened. He called 911 and maneuvered his boat closer.
The person was floating face down and appeared to be a man wearing a red shirt and black pants. Kindt could tell he was dead, and a swift current was quickly pulling the body toward the Gulf of Mexico. He knew if he didn’t keep the man in sight until authorities arrived, the body might never be found.
Bystanders like Kindt have reported for decades how they cannot get the experience out of their mind. Many find their way to skywaybridge.com, a website that has tracked Skyway suicide attempts since 1998. On the site and associated Facebook page, witnesses tell their stories, explain how helpless they felt. Sometimes, family members and friends of the person who died share insight into the victims’ lives.
As Kindt worked to keep the man’s body near his boat in the waning daylight, he felt some relief. If the man had landed on him, he’d probably be dead, too. But mostly, he felt sympathy. He wondered what had been going on in the man’s life. He said a prayer.
“I prayed that his family would be able to mourn appropriately and go through the stages of grief, because some people get stuck in denial or anger,” he said.
A St. Petersburg Fire Rescue boat arrived about a half-hour later. Kindt watched as crew members pulled the body onto the boat.
Kindt’s family knew something was wrong when he got home.
“I told my daughter, ‘I’m glad you didn’t go out on the boat because you wouldn’t have been a child anymore,’ ” he said. When she asked what he meant, he told her and his wife what he’d seen.
Later, as she searched for information about the person who jumped that day, Margarita Kindt stumbled onto skywaybridge.com and saw a photo of a baby-faced young man.
The name accompanying the photo: Mitchell Martin.
Answering the grim call-out
Skyway suicide attempts typically start out as a water rescue call, and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue is usually the first to respond.
A crew from Station 11 rushes to O’Neill’s Marina near Maximo Park and launches a fire-engine-red Boston Whaler. People have survived and been pulled from the water, but the calls usually turn into a recovery mission, said Lt. Steve Lawrence, a spokesman for the department.
“It’s hard on the firefighters to see somebody who decided to end their own life,” Lawrence said. “We’re always trying to help, and that’s one situation where we can’t.”
Retrieving the bodies is important, though, he said.
“That’s part of the healing process. It helps the family with closure.”
Helping to bring that closure has resonated with Eckerd College’s search and rescue team for years.
As part of the only college maritime rescue team in the country, student volunteers have responded to Skyway jump calls since the 1970s. They average about 10 a year, said Ryan Dilkey, the college’s associate director of waterfront, who runs the team. Dilkey joined the team as a student in 1994.
When a 911 call arrives, the team speeds to the bridge in one of four boats docked at Eckerd’s waterfront campus, just west of Maximo Park. The team’s customized search pattern, created by Dilkey and two of his colleagues, has delivered consistent success in locating bodies. In other cases, the team retrieves bodies from boaters who stopped to help.
For many students, the grim task is their first encounter with death in the field, Dilkey said. Students are taught there aren’t right or wrong ways to react. They’re trained in “stress first aid,” a set of tools developed by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation to help rescue personnel recover after traumatic calls.
Some recover just fine, Dilkey said. For others, the process takes more time.
Though the calls have provided valuable real-world experience over the years, Dilkey said the team was glad to hear about the new suicide prevention barrier.
“I would be happy,” he said, “to not respond to these as much as we do.”
Questions linger for family
The first of three children, Mitchell Martin was born in Fort Lauderdale and was about 7 when his mother Robin split with her husband and moved with her kids to Texas.
Mitchell was generous and compassionate, said his sister Megan, 19, who lives with Robin in The Woodlands, a community north of Houston.
“He was a very selfless person,” she said. “He loved and cared for anybody, no matter what. That’s just how he was since he was a kid.”
But he also struggled with depression, his family said. After graduating from high school, Mitchell tried to join the U.S. Army but injured his knee repelling from a tower during basic training. It was a blow to his self-esteem, Robin said. He worked as a shoe store manager when he was living with Robin near Galveston but lost the job after Hurricane Harvey devastated the area in 2017. He started spending more time on his Xbox.
In 2019, Mitchell moved to Tampa and lived with a friend for a few months. Later that year, he moved in with his girlfriend and her mother in Lake Worth, south of West Palm Beach.
He talked on the phone often with his mother and Megan. He said he got a job at Publix, but they learned later that wasn’t true. He said he would go to therapy but never did. He described his relationship with his girlfriend as volatile.
One day, he asked his mother to fly him home to Texas. Robin said no, thinking he needed to figure things out for himself.
“And I have to live with that for the rest of my life,” she said. “Now I’ll always wonder, if I would have brought him home, would he be fine? Would I still have him?”
In a phone call a few days before his death, Megan said, Mitchell told her he planned to get a place with some friends. He talked to his sister and mother again Aug. 2. He sounded okay — a sign, his mother now believes, that he had already decided to take his own life.
The next day, at the top of the Skyway, a state trooper searched the cab of the pickup and found Mitchell’s cell phone in the center console, according to a Sheriff’s Office report.
The phone’s map application was open and showed a route from a Punta Gorda gas station directly to the Skyway.
Pandemic delays barriers
Had all gone according to the state Transportation Department’s plan, the barrier likely would have been at least partially erected by the time Mitchell Martin arrived at the bridge that day.
The Tampa Bay Times first reported in January 2020 that the department had decided to install a barrier. Stainless steel, diamond-patterned netting resembling chicken wire would be attached to poles that extend straight up from the existing cement wall, creating an obstacle that will be nearly 11 feet high and, officials say, difficult to climb. The netting will extend on the northbound and southbound spans to a point where the bridge is roughly 50 feet above the water.
The state switched to larger boom trucks in recent years to repair and inspect the bridge, enabling crews to work around a vertical barrier, officials have said. Transportation officials say the lightweight barrier won’t create much wind resistance, block the breathtaking views or sully the bridge’s architectural splendor.
Nationwide, other bridges with high numbers of suicides are also getting barriers designed to stop them. Crews are adding horizontal netting to the vertical fence along San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, where some 1,700 people have jumped to their deaths. Vertical fencing went up in 2011 at the Aurora Bridge in Seattle and momentum is building for protections at the San Diego-Coronado Bridge.
Last March, Florida gave the Skyway job to Tarpon Springs-based Southern Road and Bridge and approved a completion date in November. But the pandemic delayed the delivery of fencing materials from overseas, pushing back the start date.
Finally, in late January, workers started drilling holes for the poles in the concrete walls. Installation of the steel netting should begin this month, said Kris Carson, a spokeswoman for the department.
The contractor has 120 days to complete the project, not including time lost for inclement weather.
Carson said the crisis phones will remain in place after the barrier is complete, and the department will continue the Highway Patrol contract.
Among those who welcome the barrier are staff members at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, said chief executive officer Clara Reynolds. The center receives about 10 Skyway calls per year, and counselors have been able to keep people on the phone until law enforcement can arrive, Reynolds said.
Marked by a raging pandemic that has stolen loved ones and livelihoods and confined people to their homes, 2020 seemed primed to be another record year for Skyway suicides. But that didn’t happen. Florida Highway Patrol records show at least seven suicides last year; skywaybridge.com put the number at 10, about half the 2018 number. Reynolds said the center did not see an uptick in calls from the bridge in 2020.
Removing the bridge as a means to that end is progress, but only one step in addressing a national suicide epidemic, Reynolds said.
“We’re hopeful we can get the message out that the pain is absolutely real, it’s meaningful and it’s hurting you, but there’s help available,” she said. “Treatment is effective and the easiest way to start is just to pick up the phone.”
Families united by grief
A day or two after her brother’s death, Megan Martin got a Facebook message from a woman she didn’t know. Her name was Margarita Kindt.
Kindt had seen comments Megan made about her brother on the Facebook page of skywaybridge.com. In her message, Kindt said her husband was there the day Mitchell jumped and he stayed with his body.
Robin Martin was driving to Tampa to collect her son’s remains when she first spoke by phone with Andy Kindt. They talked again later over FaceTime.
Robin told him how much comfort it gave her to know someone prayed for her son right after his death, and how grateful the family was that Mitchell’s body was recovered. Robin keeps some of his ashes in a teardrop-shaped necklace and had some mixed into the ink for a tattoo on her chest of two fingerprints forming a heart. Megan placed some in a heart-shaped container and had it sewn into a teddy bear.
Kindt learned more about the troubled stranger, and the experience made him shift his perspective on a suicide barrier along the bridge.
“I feel like he was very much like me when I was his age,” Kindt said.
The Martin family is left to wonder why Mitchell, who would have turned 26 on March 11, decided to end his life and why he chose the Skyway. Robin said she feels a mix of relief and anger over the barrier finally going up, too late to stop her son. She acknowledges he might have found another way to end his life, but maybe not.
“We put locks on guns, we put special caps on our pills and lock them away,” she said. “There’s all these laws in place for all these different means, it just seems like if you build something like that bridge, there should be a responsibility.”
About a month after Mitchell’s death, another man jumped and died. Then another person in December, and still another in January. Last month, according to the Highway Patrol, an 18-year-old woman jumped and survived.
“I wish he’d been the last one,” Robin said. “I don’t want more families to hurt like we hurt.”
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.