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Tappan Zee Bridge safety crew handles tows and woes

During a ride-along with the Tappan Zee Bridge patrol operators, who are dedicated New York State Thruway Authority employees charged with keeping lanes open and traffic safely moving on the bridge, they talk about the many experiences and situations they encounter during their job. (Jan. 18, 2013) Videojournalist: Xavier Mascareñas

Of the 570 miles of roadway that comprise the New York State Thruway, only the three it takes to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge have their own special safety crew, trained in everything from changing tires to stopping suicides.

The band of 11 is often first on the scene of an accident. Members are responsible for taking care of any disruptions on the bridge -- New York's longest at 16,013 feet -- and getting traffic moving again as quickly and safely as possible. Typical duties include towing disabled cars, filling up empty gas tanks, responding to car accidents and removing debris from the Tappan Zee's seven lanes.

One of the crew's more unusual responsibilities is to shepherd drivers with bridge phobias across the span. Travelers can even call a bridge patrol supervisor in advance of their trip and schedule a crossing.

Bridge patrol operator Robert Ryder of Stony Point said he's dealt with numerous people who were afraid, recalling an incident several years ago when the people in a car didn't realize they were going onto a crossing until they were on the bridge.

"They were trying to back off. They were terrified and frantic. I mean in tears," he said.

At times, the bridge patrol operators deal with life and death situations.

Domenick Giovinazzo of Nanuet, a member of the safety crew, estimated that throughout the years he has saved about a dozen people from jumping into the Hudson River 157 feet below.

Giovinazzo, who said he and his co-workers started taking classes to train for suicide prevention a few years ago, recalled saving one man who was about to take the plunge.

"He didn't even know we were there," Giovinazzo said. "He was ready to free fall into the water. And I grabbed onto his arms -- my partner was holding my legs or I would have went with him -- and we pulled him back over. And his first question was, 'Am I in heaven?'"

The Tappan Zee, which sees about 140,000 vehicles daily, is the only bridge in the state with such a crew. Around the clock, two trucks manned with two employees each, patrol the bridge hourly from the Westchester and Rockland sides. Based in a Thruway Authority building on the Tarrytown side of the span, the workers earn an average annual salary of $46,422, not including benefits or overtime, officials said.

"They have helped thousands of motorists over the years," said Brian Conybeare, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's special adviser for the new Tappan Zee Bridge.

"Working on a bridge is not like working anywhere else because your area of service is limited," Ryder explained. "It's not like being on land where you have a shoulder or somewhere where you can get out of the way."

No one recalls when the bridge crew was formed. Archives show a reference to it in October of 1964, but New York Thruway Authority spokesman Shane Mahar said it is believed the group was in service a few years before that. The bridge opened in December of 1955.

The state hopes to start construction on a replacement $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge this year, and that has put in question what will happen to the patrol operators.

Conybeare said it is still unclear whether their roles will change, "but safer driving conditions on the new bridge should greatly reduce the number of incidents they have to respond to."

Luke Hammill is a freelancer, special to Newsday

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