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When Carol Wright hopped on a bicycle some 10 years ago vowing to shed significant weight, the most she could ride was one block. Still, it was reason to celebrate doing it again and again. Next she was celebrating making it to Dixie Highway, a few more blocks from her West Palm Beach home.
Pressing on with her goal, Wright made it many more blocks to Flagler Drive, along the Intercoastal Waterway. In time, she was crossing the Royal Palm Park Bridge that connects West Palm Beach to the island of Palm Beach. Friends and neighbors reveled in Wright’s successful healthy-living journey.
About 10 a.m. Sunday, Wright hopped on her beach cruiser like she did daily. She flicked the bell on her handle bars as she passed her neighbor Ron Taylor, telling him she was off to the Classic Bookshop on the island, a place the retired long-time journalist at the Palm Beach Daily News visited often.
Hours later later Wright died, plummeting some 60 feet to her death when the drawbridge opened as she was pushing her bike across the bridge back to West Palm Beach.
“She was doing so good,” Taylor said. “She was as happy as I have ever seen her.”
Wright would have turned 80 in April. “It’s just so incredible how this happened,” Taylor said.
Police in West Palm Beach are investigating. Witnesses told police Wright was about 10 feet from the fixed span of the 1,091-foot-long bridge when the crossing gates came down and the bridge began lifting.
Police said Wright grabbed onto the railing but eventually lost her grip.
A bridge tender has safety protocols to follow before opening a drawbridge that include lowering the crossing gates for vehicles and pedestrians, and making several visual confirmations that there is no pedestrian or motorist at either of the spans or past the gates, West Palm Beach Police Department spokesman Mike Jachles told WPTV Ch. 5.
The bridge tender who was on duty at the time of the accident, a 42-year-old woman from Greenacres, declined comment Friday.
A pedestrian on the fixed span of the bridge tried to grab Wright but was unable to reach her, police said.
When reached by phone Friday, the witness said they did not wish to talk about what happened.
“I just cannot stop thinking about how terrifying her last moments must have been,” neighbor Barb Glasgow said. “I just cannot wrap my head around this. No one deserves to go like this.
“… She was really a nice woman. Just so sweet. She will be remembered fondly. She really was just such an inspiration. It’s so sad.”
A spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation, which owns the Royal Palm Bridge, did not respond to calls or emailed questions, issuing only a brief statement saying the agency is cooperating with investigators.
“This should never have happened,” said Jay Cohen, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, who in 2011 won a $1.5 million settlement after suing the Florida Department of Transportation, a bridge contractor and the bridge tender in an eerily similar case. In that incident, an 80-year-old man also plunged 60 feet to his death when the Sheridan Street Bridge in Hollywood open as Desmond Nolan was walking across, records say.
Just like Wright, Nolan grabbed onto the railing as the bridge span rose into the air before losing his grip. Cohen argued that the bridge tender was distracted. He said several witnesses on the bridge and even on boats below were making noise trying to get the attention of the bridge tender as Nolan teetered some 60 feet above the concrete.
Cohen said his case revealed numerous deficiencies in safety protocols. He said security cameras did not capture all portions of the movable bridge, leaving blind spots. Cohen said the bridge tender had a television on inside the bridge house. He said there also were not any policies in place mandating that bridge tenders come outside of the house and do a visual inspection of the bridge before opening it. Police earlier this week said that is now a requirement.
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“We were able to make a link that he was distracted. He said there were blinds down on some of the windows,” Cohen said.
Cohen said Nolan’s widow and children agreed to settle out of court just before the jury trial, provided the Florida Department of Transportation enhanced its safety measures.
Nolan’s drawbridge death in 2009 came six years after an 83-year-old woman was killed in Fort Lauderdale when the Sunrise Bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway opened as she was waking over it. Savitiri Motwane’s death was the fourth such drawbridge death on the Sunrise Bridge since 1988, according to South Florida Sun Sentinel archives.
“They were instituting new policy and procedures to avoid any situation happening like this again,” Cohen said.
“… I’m sure the bridge tender [in the most recent incident] is devastated. This was hopefully nothing more than neglect, and it also demonstrates how vigilant you have to be when you hold down a job like this where peoples’ lives are in your hands,” Cohen said. “You cannot make any mistakes with it having an impact. You’ve got bells, whistles, alarms and visual observation — everything available to you so this does not have to have happened..”
Eileen Kelley can be reached at 772-925-9193 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @reporterkell.