The bridge tender who was operating a drawbridge in West Palm Beach when a 79-year old woman plummeted six stories below the open span has been arrested and charged in her death.
Artissua Lafay Paulk, the tender on duty when Carol Wright, 79, plunged to her death, now faces one count of manslaughter by culpable negligence. Paulk was arrested last week in connection with the Feb. 6 incident, according to the West Palm Beach Police Department.
Police said Wright was walking her bike across the span toward West Palm Beach and was within 10 feet of the barrier arms that halt traffic when the drawbridge started to move.
“The woman tried to hang on. There was a bystander nearby who tried to help her, but tragically she fell five or six stories below where she died landing on solid concrete below,” West Palm Beach police spokesperson Mike Jachles said at the time.
The Florida Department of Transportation said in its report released on Mar. 17 that the bridge tender said she checked multiple times and did not see the woman before opening the span that afternoon.
The FDOT report said she told investigators that she walked out on the balcony before and after turning on the red lights and lowering gates to stop traffic, made two announcements on loudspeakers, and ultimately stepped outside three times to make sure no one was on the bridge, the Palm Beach Post reported.
Surveillance video will show that this account is false, according to attorney Lance C. Ivey, representing the dead woman’s family.
“I believe that when we get the video evidence of this incident, it will reveal unequivocally that the bridge tender’s statement doesn’t align with the true facts,” Ivey told local station WPTV.
Detectives obtained a search warrant for Paulk’s phone. Paulk surrendered her phone to investigators on Feb. 17, and they determined Paulk was not using her phone at the time of the incident.
Paulk was booked and transported to the county’s main detention center. She faces one count of manslaughter by culpable negligence.
Paulk was cooperative with detectives throughout the investigation, police said. The Palm Beach Post reported she was “distraught” at the scene of the fatal fall.
FDOT maintains the bridge, but the bridge tenders are staffed by a private state contractor.
Like all Florida drawbridges, the Royal Park Bridge, which connects West Palm Beach to Palm Beach, is equipped with bells and whistles to alert drivers and pedestrians that the drawbridge is going up.