The View from a Drawbridge

The random musings of a bridgetender with entirely too much time on her hands.

This post is one of the hardest ones I have ever written. I keep getting up to pace back and forth. I keep going from shock to anger to fury to sadness. I have been operating drawbridges for 21 years. I worked on three Jacksonville, Florida drawbridges from 2001 to 2014, with a brief intermission to work on a drawbridge in the Charleston, South Carolina area. From 2014 to present, I’ve worked on 5 different drawbridges here in Seattle, Washington. I take this job extremely seriously.

So imagine what it felt like for me to hear that, once again, someone has died while crossing a drawbridge in South Florida. It has happened more than once. Google “Death and Drawbridges” and see what pops up. I’ve heard of several drawbridge deaths in that area, and there was also one in the Boston area many years back. In most cases, the tragedy was preventable.

Let’s start by dealing with the tragedy in question. Here are the undisputed facts: On February 6th of this year, Artissua Lafay Paulk was operating the Royal Park Bridge in Palm Beach, Florida. During her last opening, a 79-year-old woman named Carol Wright was still walking her bicycle on the sidewalk of the movable span. She tried desperately to cling to the bridge as it rose up. It continued to open even though a bystander was honking his horn, and another was trying to rescue the woman and at least one person was shouting and pounding on the bridge operator’s door. She must have been so frightened. This is what causes me to pace. Ultimately, though, the bridgetender continued the opening, and Ms. Wright fell 40-60 feet to her death, slamming into the concrete pit below.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have never been on the Royal Park Bridge, let alone in its operating tower. I don’t know, nor have I spoken to, any of the people who played a part in this death. I have never worked for Florida Drawbridges, Incorporated.

All I have to go on are the multiple articles that have been written about this incident, and the many news clips I’ve watched on Youtube. My sources are listed below. For all I know, some of this information might be completely inaccurate. But based on everything I’ve read or seen, in my personal opinion, in this case it was the bridgetender who was directly at fault.

It kills me to say that. Most of the time, when problems occur on a drawbridge, it’s the bridgetender who is automatically blamed. Sometimes that’s true, but sometimes it’s not. You’d be surprised how often pedestrians crawl under gates, or attempt to climb rising drawbridges for fun. You’d also be stunned by how often drivers crash through closed gates and continue driving up a partially opened bridge. Sometimes these are daredevils who have seen that little caper in a movie and want to replicate it. (And FYI, it’s not possible.) Sometimes it’s an elderly or intoxicated person who gets rattled and hits the gas instead of the brake. I highly doubt that any of these things were the case with this 79 year old woman.

So, when I hear of an incident such as this, I usually withhold judgment, because I know how reckless the traveling public can be. But in this case, Ms. Paulk has been caught in way too many lies. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re innocent, you usually have no reason to lie.

First of all, she told the police that she had operated the bridge step by step as per procedure, which on this bridge apparently includes walking out on the balcony and looking around on three separate occasions during the opening. Unfortunately for her, camera footage of the tower during that day shows that she did not do so for any of her openings. Not one. And during their investigation, the police found deleted texts on her phone that were from her supervisor/mother-in-law which said something along the lines of, “Tell them you went out on the balcony three times during your opening. Now delete this text.”

And the most heinous part of this is that the victim of this negligent act was on the same side of the bridge as the tower is. That, and based on the drone footage I’ve seen of this bridge, there aren’t exactly a ton of blind spots for the operator to contend with. The bridge is straight as an arrow, with no girders above sidewalk level to obstruct one’s view. This should never have happened.

As the bridge rose up, Ms. Wright was probably 20 feet from the operator. The bridgetender didn’t hear her screaming for help. The bridgetender didn’t hear the man honking his horn. The bridgetender didn’t hear the other man pounding on her door and shouting. I’m guessing she must have been listening to music or something. And I’m here to tell you that when you are doing a bridge opening, you are not supposed to be doing anything else. You shouldn’t even be picking your nose, let alone doing something that prevents you from hearing what is going on.

Fortunately, the operator tested negative for drugs. That’s about the only thing in her favor. But the tragic result remains the same.

All this, to me, indicates a deadly level of complacency. This is not a job where you can be complacent. You can’t ever cut corners or skip steps. You have to be on point. You have to be on constant watch. We’re talking about a million pounds of concrete and steel on the move. A good operator realizes this, and the potential for danger is never far from her or his mind.

But there’s even more to this. The bridgetender is at fault, in my opinion, but she’s definitely not the only one to blame. There is a very negligent drawbridge culture in the state of Florida. Florida Department of Transportation contracts out all its bridges to the lowest bidder, and you definitely get what you pay for. I’ve seen it many times with my own eyes.

I worked for a different subcontractor, but that one used to do everything they could to cut corners so that the bulk of their contract money would be a profit for them. They would water down cleaning supplies. We used to have to beg for toilet paper. They would give us substandard equipment, such as old, used marine radios.

The turnover of employees with these subcontractors was horrific, because they pay about 1/3 of what I’m earning here in Seattle, and raises only come at the time of contract renewal, and these are often 6 year contracts. It’s not a living wage. Not even close. Raises could be written into the contract, but no one ever does that.

Toward the end of my tenure, my subcontractor only hired people part time so that they wouldn’t have to pay employees for sick leave. I worked for 10 years without health insurance. (Well, in truth, the contract required that they provide “adequate” health insurance, and since no one specifies what “adequate” means, they provided us with insurance that had a $20,000 deductible, something I could never afford to pay on their salary.)

Often people would be called in at the last minute to work a shift on little or no sleep. When they needed employees, they’d often hire relatives or friends with no real qualifications, or people with such serious problems that they were unemployable everywhere else. It was my contractor’s shocking habit to offer jobs to whatever drunks they found at the VFW bar.

And training was a joke in Florida. Here in Seattle, you are trained and evaluated for three days by multiple people, and have to perform at least 30 openings under supervision. In Florida, you trained for one shift with one person and had to do five openings. The next day, you were on your own.

So these subcontractors cut costs in training, in equipment and supplies, and hired a lot of really inadequate people who were so desperate they’d tolerate exploitation. But the reason Florida DOT subcontracts in the first place is that they wanted to save money, too. They didn’t want to have to give people the full benefits package required for a state employee. So, ultimately, it’s the traveling public who pays for it, sometimes with their lives. I’m so glad none of these things happen here in Seattle.

The prevailing culture in FDOT is that a trained monkey could do the job. They think it’s just pushing a button. Not so. This job requires a lot of independent judgment, vigilance, and professionalism. It’s not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be.

I’m proud to say that no one has ever been hurt by my actions, or the lack thereof, in the 21 years I’ve been on the job. I don’t think I could ever forgive myself if someone were injured or died.

So here’s my tip to avoid manslaughter. First of all, no subcontractors. Pay a living wage so you get responsible, mature, drug free, intelligent people applying for the job.

If you get hired to work on a drawbridge, spend your entire career avoiding complacency. You are being paid to keep people safe. In exchange for that pay, do your damned job. Policies are in place for a reason.

For those who only took the job because they thought it would be easy, please leave. Don’t give bridgetenders, the majority of whom are extremely conscientious, a bad name because you were hoping for a free ride. Lives are at stake. This is no joke. There should be a special circle in hell for those who treat other people’s lives as if they are a mere inconvenience.

This whole situation sickens me. It disgusts me to think that anyone might assume that most bridgetenders are like Ms. Paulk or her supervisor. They are a blight on this profession.

I don’t think they’re monsters, however. Ms. Paulk has definitely shed many tears in the aftermath of this incident. I’m sure she has regrets, and I expect she would do things differently if given the chance. And the supervisor was trying to stick up for her bridgetender, albeit in an extremely misguided way. Speaking from hard won experience, a supervisor that has your back is a rare quality in a supervisor, indeed. She just crossed way, way over the line. But in real time, neither one of them took the job seriously enough, and now someone is dead. That, to me, is unacceptable.

I would like to extend my sincere condolences to the family of Carol Wright. I’m sure bridgetenders around the world are keeping her in their hearts and minds, and having her there will encourage us to continue doing our very best to safely operate these bridges.

When all is said and done, if justice is truly served, the bridge should be named after Carol Wright. This contractor should be put out of business, Florida should have to completely reconfigure the way it deals with it’s drawbridges (and the City of Seattle would be the perfect model for that), and the settlement that the family receives should be so large that they could purchase the entire state if they wished.

None of this will bring Ms. Wright back, though. All she wanted to do was go to the bookstore, and instead her life was cut short due to someone’s pure laziness and indifference. That’s the worst crime of all.

Sources:

Artissua Lafay Paulk: Florida bridge tender charged with MANSLAUGHTER after woman’s deadly fall

‘I killed a lady on the bridge’: Details emerge about woman’s fatal plunge on Florida drawbridge

Bridge tender, supervisor involved in West Palm Beach deadly bridge fall fired, company says

Legal Liability after Woman Falls to Death When Drawbridge Opens

Miami Herald: Tender, supervisor fired following death of woman on rising West Palm Beach drawbridge

Video: Woman Plunges to Her Death From Rising Drawbridge

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2 thoughts on “How Bridgetending Turns into Manslaughter

  1. Reblogged this on The Bridgehunter's Chronicles and commented:
    This write-up was on an event of a couple weeks ago, where carelessness and lacking attention resulted in a tragedy that should have been avoided. Being a bridge tender for any moveable bridge requires a person to pay attention to the finest detail. This didn’t happen and like the author said, the person responsible should have his day in court and a drawbridge should be (re-)named in memory of the woman, whose life was cut short by something that should have been avoided.

    1. Thanks for sharing this! It was heartbreaking to write, but everyone should be made aware of drawbridge safety and the lack thereof.

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