The Whole Story Behind The Sunshine Skyway Suicides Story
Every day, thousands of people use the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to cross Tampa Bay. Hundreds of people also use the bridge to end their lives.
Hanns Jones is one of the people who jumped off the bridge for that reason.
But Jones survived.
Jones spoke to producer Rich Halten for part of a documentary produced with the support of the Transom Donor Fund. WLRN aired an excerpt of that story—which you can hear above. You can also find the full documentary at Transom.org.
Halten wrote the following essay for Transom about how he produced this story:
Who did What to WHOM!?
My memory’s not what it once was. But hearing a certain name made an instant connection with the past.
A prominent Tampa lawyer was murdered by his ex-wife. She snapped, drove to his new home and shot him six times. I got a cold chill when the victim was ID’d. I’d known him as a neighborhood kid decades ago when we played kid games.
But the part of the story I couldn’t shake was what his ex did after emptying her revolver. She drove to the nearby Sunshine Skyway Bridge and jumped nearly 200 feet into Tampa Bay. The cosmic joke was on her. Instead of evading an ugly trial and lifetime lockup, she survived.
Now I’d heard about plenty of jumpers who’d used the Sunshine Skyway to exit life. But somebody who actually lived to tell about it?
I’m no fan of gruesome movies or TV, but morbid curiosity took over. What thoughts do bridge jumpers have a second after their feet leave the wall? How does it feel to hit choppy water at 75 miles per hour? How do their broken bodies stay afloat until rescued?
And would this make a good radio story?
Thank goodness for a certain four-letter word.
Luck. I had none of it while trying to set up an interview with the ex-wife in her new home at the state pen. We got a little correspondence going, but it ended abruptly when a letter bounced back “Return to Sender.” Either she decided not to participate or the prison system wouldn’t allow it.
Then luck struck. A survivor named Hanns Jones actually returned my email. After a few phone calls convincing him I wasn’t out to exploit his story for ill-gotten gain (I explained it was for public radio), he agreed to an interview.I was hitting dead ends trying to contact a few other surviving jumpers.
Magic. I couldn’t have asked for a better storyteller. Or a jumper so willing to volunteer all the painful and emotional details of his ordeal. Or a voice that could paint the picture like a colorful character in a movie.
Driving away from that first interview with Hanns, holding the tiny speaker on my flash recorder up to my ear, the cartoon light bulb flashed on overhead: “Holy crap! This guy can carry the piece. Who needs a detached narrator when you’ve got the glue to hold it all together, a strong story arc and a commanding voice, all in one.”
All I had to do was take a zillion bits and pieces, assemble them into a coherent story, and orchestrate with other sonic ingredients.
After I found Hanns (a gift from the radio gods?) everything fell into place like few things in life ever do. Even when I hit the occasional speed bump, a solution presented itself that made the piece better.
You’ve heard that luck is some combination of preparation, perspiration and inspiration. I agree — up to a point. But there’s another kind that you can’t account for or prep for. The kind that comes out of the blue like lightning. You don’t need it to make great radio. But it’s a game changer when it happens.
What’s with all the sound design you ask?
Ever notice that the soundtracks of most film and video docs are more complex and better crafted than radio documentaries? Why be self-limiting, unless the piece is pure journalism? Why not use every tool available, including music, atmospheres and SFX?
Strong sound design was always part of my plan, but it also served a practical purpose. I needed it to cover wind-damaged portions of Hanns’ dialogue (micro editing also helped). I wasn’t prepared for the 15-25 mph gusts off the bay in our first interview. My bad. We recorded in calmer locations after that.
I might’ve gone lighter on sound design if the piece had traditional narration. But Hanns’ unflinching willingness to tell his personal story made it a good fit. Really, a perfect fit to elevate “Splash” to impressionistic, even cinematic. At least, that’s what I was shooting for.
And I believe “Splash” has greater creative license because it’s not really a documentary. It’s a feature. We don’t hear that “f” word uttered much in U.S. radio. Maybe because there’s a fuzzy notion of what the heck it is. This description from the In The Dark web site makes sense to me:
“The Radio Feature seems to live in a strange and much neglected no-man’s land somewhere between journalism and art.”
Bingo. That pinpoints where I’m trying to work in the radio landscape.
How did a guy in his 60s become a public radio newcomer?
Would you believe a return to radio roots? At 13, I started hanging around a station in my hometown in Florida and maintained a hands-on connection to radio through high school and army duty.
Fast forward past twenty-something years in advertising, and I fell in love again with the medium — though a stint as a producer at a sports-talk station was a rude awakening to today’s corporate radio. Meanwhile, public radio — where my dial had become increasingly glued — was looking like a more simpatico place to be.
Never mind that I get looks at Third Coast like, “Dude, the AARP meeting is down the hall.” And so what if the money is slightly better than picking up aluminum cans along the freeway. I’m not in it for the bucks (so I keep telling my wife).
What am I in it for? Funny, I was asking myself just that a few years ago during a Center for Doc. Studies summer workshop. Whining, actually, to John Biewen about the pay and lack of programs to showcase one’s work.
Try thinking of yourself like most fine artists, said John. Money and fame isn’t their motivation. The creative urge is what drives them. Do it because you love it.
Like B-movie heroes used to say when their sidekicks slapped them back to reality at a critical moment: “Thanks. I needed that.”
Taking the long view.
There’s lots of emphasis on public radio’s youthful, hopeful neophytes. I’ve got no problem with that, having done my share of mentoring over the years. But, without getting too Rodney Dangerfield about it, a small group of radio curmudgeons is still looking for a little respect, working to be heard somewhere on the dial, the web, or on iPods.
Maybe your intended radio career path has meandered down a Cul de Sac. My advice: Don’t hang up the earphones — not if you love it. Who knows? Maybe your best moments in the medium come later, when life has slowed down and you’re out from under a heavy mortgage.
In the words of Hanns, “It gets better.”
Tools and other production notes.
Recorders: Olympus LS-10 and a Sony PCM-10
Mike: Heil PR 35
Other: One interview was recorded via Skype using Wiretap Studio. Can you tell which?
Editing and sound design: Pro Tools 8 on a three-year old Mac Mini
Music: Royalty free from various sources. Some were gratis, a few I paid for.
SFX: I recorded many of them. Others are from Soundsnap.com or Freesound.org
About Rich Halten
My love for radio goes back to ancient history. It was THE entertainment medium in our home until I was 11 and we finally got a 17-inch Philco. Not that it stopped there. I wanted to do more than listen to the radio. I began to haunt a station just a bike ride away from home and school, getting chummy enough with DJs to segue records. By 16 I was spinning the hits after school and weekends. Dating was an occasional event because radio came first.
I worked for agencies, mostly in Atlanta, and eventually became a partner in one. Years later, we sold our shop to a bigger agency. Four years after that I was downsized and ready for a return to my radio roots. But the medium had changed. A gig as a producer at a sports-talk station was a rude awakening to corporate radio: more pressure, less fun.Radio helped me through college, and it made army duty an adventure when I was stationed at the American Forces Network in Germany. After discharge, the siren song of TV called. But a few years at a PBS station led to advertising as a creative outlet that actually paid good money.
Meantime, I was learning Pro Tools producing spoken word CDs for a friend, and discovering the glamour of being an indie public radio maker. While I’m still learning to play the game, it’s the most fun I’ve had since I was a teenager — on the radio.