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07/01/2007

Big Mac at 50

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Steve Benko, staff leader at the Mackinac Bridge Authority, escorts a truck across the bridge. Benko said his job in escort and driver assistance is to keep traffic flowing over the bridge during breakdowns and accidents, but staffers will assist drivers who are afraid of heights or nervous about driving conditions on the bridge. "A lot of people don't like heights, including me," Benko said. "I don't want to be this tall."

Troubled Over Bridged Waters

Mackinac crew offers rides to those with severe phobia

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Florina Ackley gets a ride across the Mackinac Bridge, driven in her own car by Tom Caption of the Mackinac Bridge Authority. "Every time I come and say, 'I can do this,' but I can't," Ackley said. "I just don't like heights."

ST. IGNACE — The Mackinac Bridge gives Florina Ackley the jitters, but she wasn't in dire straits as she drove from suburban Detroit to her home in Wausau, Wis. She just picked up a phone in Mackinaw City and a Mackinac Bridge Authority employee gave her a ride across.

She's among more than 1,000 people per year who ask for a lift from one side to the other, mostly because of phobias regarding the span that rises up to 200 feet above the water.

"I don't like heights, and crossing the bridge you're way up there,” she said. On her way south to visit family, she had asked for a ride while going through the toll booth in St. Ignace.

There is no charge for those who fear crossing bridges, a disorder clinically known as gephydrophobia.

There is a $2 fee for backpackers and bicyclists, however. No pedestrians are allowed on the bridge other than on the annual Labor Day walk from the north to the south end, said Dean Steiner, bridge services manager.

John Lane is one of several employees who patrol the Mighty Mac and are frequently called upon to give rides, mostly to those who are fearful. In addition, they watch out for hazards on the bridge, including animals and stopped vehicles, and they escort large trucks and wide loads across.

Lane, a shift leader, never knows when someone's going to want a ride over.

"You never know when it's going to happen,” he said. Wind, rain, snow; it's not always on days when you'd expect people to be more afraid.

"Some days, you can have a postcard moment when the Straits are like glass and you'll have 10 or 11 riders,” he said.

That's about the most he's ever shuttled in a day, said Lane. He started working for the bridge in 1998 with the never-ending task of painting the span. For the last five years, he's been patrolling.

He and others drive back and forth, looking for people having trouble or for traffic hazards, all the while keeping an eye out for weather that might warrant temporarily closing the 50-year-old landmark.

Some people's bridge fears are more severe than others.

"Some sit in the front seat with you, looking around,” he said. "Some sit in the back and cry, lying down in the seat and burying their head.”

Every now and then, someone gets part of the way across and freezes.

"One northbound vehicle stopped by the tower,” he said. "She (the driver) was white in the face and white in the knuckles. We had to gently pry her hands off the steering wheel.”

The riders are men and women of all ages and are driving cars, motorcycles and even an occasional semi-truck.

Once every several years, someone commits suicide by jumping off the bridge, the most recent having been last winter, Steiner said.

"We don't publicize that, because we don't want to encourage it,” he said.

Lane and others have encountered deer, dogs, skunks and foxes on the bridge, which pose a possible traffic hazard.

"Once there was a beaver walking north,” he said. "I had to get a five-gallon bucket and a shovel and get to where I could release it.”

On another occasion, Lane encountered someone who had gotten out of a car in the middle of the bridge and said, "A friend of mine is riding a boat from Detroit to Chicago and I'm just taking a picture,” he said.

"That's against the law, but we just courteously tell people to move along.”

Ackley doesn't cross large bridges a lot. Yet every now and then she has to drive over one that doesn't offer escorts, like when she crosses the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Kentucky.

"I just grab hold and keep driving straight, but don't look around,” she said.

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