A former bridge operator pleaded guilty this week to a manslaughter charge in connection with the death of a 79-year-old woman who fell from an open span of a bridge in Palm Beach County, Florida, while walking her bike.
Carol Wright, 79, died in February while walking across the Royal Park Bridge while the spans were rising, authorities said. The bridge connects Palm Beach and West Palm Beach.
The operator, 44-year-old Artissua Lafaye Paulk, must spend years eight years on probation.
As part of her plea, Paulk must write an apology letter to Wright’s sisters. She must also perform a total of 200 hours of community service.
She denied seeing the woman while opening the bridge, according to the arrest affidavit. She maintained she stepped outside on the balcony of her bridge tower, as required to make sure no one was on the span. But police said surveillance footage showed Paulk did not step outside.
Witnesses recounted the horror.
One said he tried to save Wright but he had nowhere to brace himself and she was too heavy for him to hold, documents said. He had to let her go to stop himself from falling into the opening, documents stated.
Another witness said he had stopped his car at the traffic light of the bridge. He heard Wright call for help.
“Ms. Wright then slid down the bridge and out of his view,” officers wrote.
This driver said he honked his car horn to get the bridge operator’s attention, but the bridge continued opening. After the bridge closed and the gates opened, he drove up to the bridge tower and used the call box to report that Wright had fallen.
“The bridgetender came out of the tower approximately 30 or 45 seconds before the medics arrived,” the affidavit stated. “He [this particular witness] could not recall hearing any verbal announcement before the bridge opened or if bridgetender was ever outside on the balcony.”
A female witness told cops she did not hear an announcement at that time, although she heard announcements in the past.
Police learned from a supervisor that bridgetenders are supposed to step out onto the balcony three different times during the opening procedures to make sure no vehicles or people are on the bridge before opening it.
But police say they reviewed surveillance footage of the bridge during Paulk’s shift. Her door did not open for five of the six bridge openings, including this fatal one, they said. Neither was there any movement, they said.
There were a total of six openings that day, video showed. Police also said that Paulk kept incomplete records, logging only four out of the six openings.
“Paulk said she never saw the individual who fell from the bridge,” authorities wrote. “Paulk said she had 5 openings today which she documented on a written log. Paulk said operating the bridge is easy, but it requires “a lot of looking” because there is no sensor or warning that tells her if someone is on the bridge spans.”
Also, that same supervisor was Paulk’s mother-in-law Kathie Harper, documents stated. She allegedly texted the defendant after the incident to “make dam[n] sure you tell them you walked outside on balcony 3 diff times to make sure no one was past gates,” and Harper instructed her to delete the message.
Both women were fired. Harper was charged in the incident. Wright’s family reached an $8.2 million settlement with Florida Drawbridges, the company that operates Royal Park Bridge.
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