40 years after the Skyway Bridge disaster, ‘Mayday: Captain Lerro’ is video-previewed
At 7:34 a.m. Friday, May 9, 1980, amid hurricane-force winds and sheets of unceasing rainfall, the freighter MV Summit Venture knocked down the west span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Taking the legs out from under it, the MV Summit Venture toppled nearly 1,300 feet of roadway, sending the traffic traveling southbound on it into free fall, plunging 150 feet down into the waters of Tampa Bay. In total, 35 people lost their lives that day.
St. Petersburg native Bill DeYoung was 21 years old the day the Skyway fell. That day, he said, is something he’ll never forget. DeYoung had started writing for the St. Petersburg Times at the age of 17, a journalist in every sense of the title. And something about the story kept tugging at his indefatigable curiosity.
“Periodically, especially after the advent of the internet, it would be something I would think about and read about,” DeYoung explained. “I started reading accounts in different places that did not agree with each other factually. As a journalist that will make you absolutely crazy. It just became an obsession with me about what really happened.”
In 2008, he began a fact-finding mission to uncover the true story. In 2013, it became his debut non-fiction book: Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down.
DeYoung, now 61, is the Culture Editor of the St. Pete Catalyst, and author of three books. He followed up Skyway with Phil Gernhard Record Man in 2018 and I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews in 2019.
As the 40th anniversary of the Skyway Bridge disaster drew closer, DeYoung took on a new title: playwright.
His one-man play, Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge, is written from the perspective of Captain John Lerro, the harbor pilot who crashed the MV Summit Venture into a support pier of the bridge on that fateful day.
Originally, the play was set to premiere in front of a live audience at Opera Central in St. Petersburg May 9. Due to Covid-19, the premiere has been postponed. However, DeYoung, along with director Roxanne Fay and actor Michael Horn, have worked diligently to bring the first act to you – virtually.
The first 22 minutes of the 70-minute play will premiere on the Mayday Facebook page at 7 p.m., Saturday, May 9, the 40th anniversary of the disaster. The virtual production was filmed in just two hours while the actor, director, video crew and playwright were all social distancing, six feet apart at Opera Central.
The material came from Lerro’s own words, interviews he had given, or what other people said about him. At one point in the first act, a mock conversation occurs, in which Lerro asks if the person he’s just met knows who he is and what he’s done. DeYoung said that friends and family told him that anytime Lerro met someone new, he would almost immediately steer the conversation toward the Skyway disaster, which DeYoung describes as “a sort of Catholic confession impulse.”
DeYoung said that he was driven to write the play after writing Skyway, when his research revealed the truth about Lerro. “I came to realize that the prevailing opinion of John Lerro was wrong,” he said. “It really wasn’t his fault, but he blamed himself for the rest of his life … you feel so bad for all of the people that this impacted so severely, but in a way he was the 36th victim. I actually really believe that. Because this killed him too, it just took a while.”
DeYoung trudged through thousands of pages of documents during his hunt for what really happened that fateful day. Through testimonies from the hearing, class action lawsuits that followed it, investigative reports by the Coast Guard, the NTSB, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. He interviewed many of those involved in the Skyway Bridge disaster and investigations, except, unfortunately, Lerro, who died in 2002, at the age of 59.
The first act of the play, which opens with a lightning strike and the original mayday radio signal recording from the Summit Venture to the U.S. Coast Guard, sets the stage for the drama of the second half, DeYoung says. It turns the one-dimensional figure of Lerro, known for that one singular tragic day at the age of 37, three-dimensional, with stories of his youth, his training in Panama and his foray into ballet.
The rest of the play, which DeYoung hopes to debut live later this year, includes a vivid retelling of the day itself, how Lerro becomes a social pariah in the community, and how it ruined his marriage and his love of the piloting profession.
“He was tried and convicted in the court of public opinion,” DeYoung said. “It was ruled – not in a punitive way – that his hesitation contributed to the accident. But at the same time, he was given his license back because the judge who had the final say over it said it was an act of God, it was the weather.
“What happened to John was that as time passed, as the years went on, people didn’t remember that. People remember that one guy was on the front page of the paper for weeks and months at a time. People remembered that there has to be something wrong with you to hit a stationary object in a bay. That’s what people remembered.”
The video begins with Lerro seated, the shot close. As the play goes on, the shot widens, revealing that Lerro is seated in a wheelchair. Lerro was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just a few years after the Skyway disaster. A disease that crippled his body and upended his return to harbor piloting.
“He spent the last 15 years of his life attempting to better himself, attempting to pull himself out this pit of despair, guilt and blame,” DeYoung explained. “And in the meantime he was just getting weaker and sicker and weaker and sicker. The part of the play that you don’t see gets very dramatic, because he talks to God, he ends up screaming at God. It’s really about his lifelong search for absolution.”
See the first 22 minutes of Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge at the Mayday Facebook page. It premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 9.
May 8, 2020at7:04 pm
Wow–the preview is incredibly powerful. I can’t wait to see the entire play.