“Mr. Coronado” Worked On The Ferries For 10 Years And On The Bridge For Over 30—Saving Lives Along The Way - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Coronado Island News

“Mr. Coronado” Worked On The Ferries For 10 Years And On The Bridge For Over 30—Saving Lives Along The Way

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Posted: Friday, August 9, 2019 10:35 am

In 1986 the California Department of Transportation did an article on Phillip Needham praising his incredible work talking potential suicide victims “off the rail.” Needham was working the graveyard shift operating a tow truck for Caltrans on the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. Late at night, he’d walk the empty lanes, marveling in the solitude. But he wasn’t always alone. Sometimes, he’d see someone else out on the bridge, peering over the edge. He’d talk to them.

“If you could get them to look at you and talk to you, you had a 50 percent chance to talk them off the rail,” Needham said. “I just thought that they needed somebody to care about them. That’s why they’re up there.”

While Needham signifies this as the most gratifying part of his career, he didn’t start there.

Needham, born on Coronado in 1938, is a true Coronado native. He spent his childhood running around the deck of the San Diego and Coronado ferry boats and holing up in the wheelhouse with his father Donald E. Needham—a ferry captain and former bellhop at the Hotel del Coronado. He graduated from Coronado High School in 1956 and while many of his peers were anxious to break away from Coronado, Needham was anxious to make his mark. When I asked him if he had any sweeping aspirations of becoming big, he laughed and said no, he just wanted his Dad to get him a job at the ferry company. At age 19 he got the job. He started work securing incoming boats, lowering the ramps for the cars and ushering them onto Orange Avenue. Throughout his 10 year tenure, he rose through the ranks serving as both a deckhand and as a part of the maintenance crew.

But as car traffic on the ferries increased, talk of a bridge connecting Coronado to San Diego brewed—something that would spell the end for the ferries. “I thought that if they would build it, it would really change Coronado drastically.” Needham said.

But Needham wasn’t afraid of change—or bridges. In fact, in 1969, he befriended a Caltrans engineer who took him up to the nearly-finished bridge to watch the last section be lowered into place. Days before the official opening, he started work with Caltrans. Back then there wasn’t a concrete barrier dividing lanes, instead they were separated by orange stanchions; orange rubber posts. Each day Needham drove his tow truck and moved each individual stanchion out of the holes in the concrete deck of the bridge. He was also responsible for assessing accidents, towing stalled cars, and even, in one notable story, managing wildlife. (They once shut down a lane because a possum wandered onto the road and began hissing frantically, cornered by an anxious toll taker). In 1993, the concrete barrier came in along with a new system called the zipper. Needham operated that too. He did it all.

But still, there were moments where he felt he failed. Reflecting on the times when he wasn’t able to successfully talk someone away from the rail he felt like he hadn’t done enough. “I’ve been up there sometimes for two hours with somebody in the middle of the night and you think you’ve got them and they look at you and they just lean backwards. And you think to yourself, what could I have done that would’ve made a difference?” Needham said.

But for the lives he didn’t save—there were 35 he did. He still recalls the first person he helped: a young woman whom he talked away from the rail and drove back into town. When the police showed up at the Toll Plaza Building he stopped them saying, “We’re having a cup of coffee and we’re having a conversation.” One thing is certain: throughout his 34 years of service on the bridge and 10 with the ferries Needham never did anything by half. Now, at the 50 year milestone, Needham is a fixture in the Coronado community. Upon his retirement in 2002, he received a letter from California District 11 where they thanked him for his many years of service, dubbing him “Mr. Coronado.” Needham grinned looking at the letter, saying, “That’s exactly what they call me, that’s it.”

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