ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Working suicide patrol on the towering Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Leif Cardwell rolled up to find the 58-year-old woman with one leg already draped over the short concrete barrier wall. The license plate on the Ford minivan she drove there said: "HPPY NOW."
Cardwell kept his distance, imploring her to talk to him about her problems and not go through with it. He had thwarted a bridge suicide attempt two months before.
"It's too late," she kept saying. She threw down her driver's license and cell phone and swung her other leg over.
Then she was gone, just like that.
Seconds later came a loud crash when she hit the water. "It was a very windy day, it was noisy, but it was clearly audible," recalls the 38-year-old trooper. ". . . It is a violent way to go."
Despondent souls keep stopping at the peak of the Florida Gulf Coast landmark to kill themselves every year, adding to its reputation as one of the country's most notorious bridges for jumpers.
It's a problem that the state has tried to address with 24-hour patrols, surveillance cameras and crisis hotline phones at the top. Now it's possible that the bridge patrol, which troopers say has saved dozens of lives since it was initiated in 2000, could be cut back as the cash-strapped state government struggles to make ends meet.
Ten people jumped to their deaths at the Skyway last year. But seven others were talked out of it or wrestled away from the edge by one of the troopers who drive back and forth across the four-mile bridge around the clock specifically for that reason.
About 120 people have killed themselves there since the higher, cable-supported version of the Skyway opened in April 1987, carrying traffic across the mouth of Tampa Bay on Interstate 275.
For unknown reasons, the rate started picking up in the mid-1990s, and over the last decade an average of eight people a year have died there, highway patrol and sheriff's office statistics show.
The worst was 2003: 13 dead, 10 other attempts.
Those who fall the roughly 200 feet from the center span of the bridge hit the dark water in less than four seconds, moving about 75 m.p.h. The impact tears away their clothes, shatters bones, and ruptures internal organs. Some hit the rocks.
By being constantly on or around the bridge, troopers have thwarted more than 90 suicide attempts since 2000, the highway patrol says. Regardless, a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman acknowledged that the $330,000-a-year program that pays troopers to work extra duty on the Skyway is being scrutinized as the agency tightens its belt.
The key to saving people, officials say, is being able to get an officer there within minutes after a car stops on the bridge, which is not otherwise accessible to pedestrians.
Trooper Dan Cole worked the detail a couple of times a week for about four years and never lost anyone over the side.
"I think I've physically grabbed six off the wall, two that had been totally hanging over the wall," says Cole, who received a commendation for one of the saves.
Why jump off a bridge? Survivors have cited convenience and the romanticism associated with ending their lives in beautiful locales, floating through space before being enveloped by the water, then darkness.
In 2001, a St. Petersburg man named Hanns Jones lived to tell of the plunge.
The now 42-year-old artist and inventor was despondent over business pressures, heavy drinking, and a horrible fight with his wife.
"Right after I jumped I thought it was a big mistake," he says.
It wasn't what he expected.
"You just accelerate, accelerate so fast, and then it stops," he says. "But when you stop, you don't feel like you hit water. You feel like you hit the concrete."