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Community Voices: Long after the Skyway disaster, bridges still unnerve us

Roy Peter Clark

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Sunday, May 11, 1980, two days after the Sunshine Skyway Bridge's western span fell. From the collection of Bill DeYoung

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Many of us who were living in St. Pete on May 9, 1980 remember the moment we heard that a long section of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge had been destroyed. We could feel in the shaking of our houses that a surprise storm had hit us. But no one could imagine that the squall could swerve a freighter, that the great bridge could fall, or that 35 souls would be lost.

On this 40th anniversary, we are reliving the moment, hearing the stories of the helpers, victims, and survivors. In 1987 a great new bridge was opened to replace the one that was broken “like a toothpick being smashed by a sledgehammer,” as described by Department of Transportation inspector Steven Plotkin.

The new bridge was more beautiful than the old spans, wider and not as scary, with concrete bumpers designed to prevent the recurrence of a collision with a 20,000-ton ship. However reassuring the new Skyway might be, consider this.

In the 33 years since the opening of the new Skyway, more than 248 people have jumped to their deaths. More than 30 have jumped and survived the plunge. Think about those numbers. The destruction of the bridge killed 35 people. The allure of the new bridge – as has occurred with many other bridges and high places – has attracted more than seven times as many people to their deaths. (New safeguards have been put in place to discourage jumpers.)

[If you are reading this essay and are having suicidal thoughts, please stop reading and get help now. To speak with someone, call the National Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-8255. Or dial the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at 2-1-1.]

We live on a great peninsula, bridges extending in all directions. Truth be told, all those bridges unnerve us. The perilous journey from here to there, over valleys or deep waters, offer an archetype for our fears about our safety, our direction, the unknown.

Two weeks after the 1980 disaster, I wrote an essay that appeared in the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer that tried to help people make sense of their enduring misgivings about bridges, now heightened by disaster.  A condensed version appears here, a reminder that while a disaster might strike a community once, its effects can endure.

 

The Skyway Bridge disaster was our nightmare come true

 (Originally published June 1, 1980)

Trains derail. Planes drop from the sky. Trucks and cars collide. People die and we grieve. But it is different with a bridge. We make a simple act of faith when we cross a bridge, especially one as awesome as the Sunshine Skyway. We believe in our hearts that the bridge will remain standing long enough for us to get across. Now we don’t even have that.

I have bad dreams about bridges. I had them before the Skyway became the Die-way.

I will be running across a bridge toward some unknown destination. Dark funnel clouds spin on each side. Water rages below, and the bridge wobbles beneath my feet.

Or the bridge will become a roller coaster, pulling me slowly, slowly up a sharp incline. When I get to the top, I find to my horror that the bridge drops into nothingness.

During the worst dreams, I drive my car off the end of a steep bridge. I try to control it as it plummets toward the water, but the steering wheel locks, and my foot never finds the brake pedal.

Many of us dream about bridges because bridges are important. But none of us expects the worst of those dreams to become reality.

I rode across what is left of the Skyway Bridge six days after the accident. The only way to appreciate the devastation, to begin to understand the terror of those who died, is to cross the existing span.

Follow the parallel route. Pay your 50 cents toll. Drive past the sign that says, ironically, Construction Ahead.

For a few moments everything looks normal. Pelicans perch on the steel girders. Tampa Bay sparkles to the horizon, and the bridge rises to its zenith.

But you know what’s coming. Traffic slows. Your palms become sweaty on the hot steering wheel. Your breath rattles in your chest, and there’s a taste of copper in your throat. Your car approaches the top of the bridge, and the metal grating sizzles beneath your tires. You feel a rush of adrenalin as it comes into sight.

You see it as Richard Hornbuckle must have seen it in his yellow Buick Skylark. A 40-foot slant of jagged, twisted metal (now destroyed) points to the void that carried 35 to their deaths 150 feet below.

Drive on for 1,000 feet and see the rest: the naked concrete support jutting upward like the Roman number II, the rubble in the bay, the southern disconnected ramp that now serves as a fishing pier.

The bridge is a ruinous dreamscape, made more terrible because we have all driven over that spot where there is now nothingness. And it’s not something you can appreciate from land – from Pinellas Point or Mullet Key – where the standing span creates the illusion of completeness.

If you have crossed the bridge and felt the slight tug of vertigo that draws you toward the bay, you will never cross a bridge with confidence again.

The Skyway Bridge accident has become a public nightmare. Two weeks have passed, but we have the remains of the bridge to remind us. We have spent these last days telling ourselves that we have always felt uneasy about the Skyway. We are hiding our fear with darkly humorous language: I heard one person say he wouldn’t be “caught dead” crossing the bridge again.

The falling of the bridge is the worst kind of disaster, one that has demoralized the community and filled with dread many of those who still must cross the bay for a livelihood.

If we now suffer from a collective malaise as a result of this accident, it might have to do with how we feel about bridges. They are important symbols for us. The physical image of the bridge reminds us of our own movement from one stage of life to another, from adolescence to adulthood. At least 20 works are entitled “The Bridge,” the greatest being Hart Crane’s poem celebrating the Brooklyn Bridge.

The metaphor pervades our language: We try not to burn our bridges behind us. And we cross our bridges when we come to them.

Historically, important battles were won and lost at bridges. Martin Luther King Jr. led his people out of Selma, Alabama, across the hump-backed Edmund Pettus Bridge to Montgomery and ultimately to a voting rights victory. Sen. Edward Kennedy’s life took a turn for the worse at a bridge.

And we have our personal bridge stories. My mother went into labor in Manhattan. The hospital was across the East River, so I was born shortly after crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.

I went to graduate school at Stony Brook University on Long Island, a once badly administered state university. As part of a program of construction, a bridge was built between the student union and the library. But halfway through, someone realized that the bridge would not meet the library at the right place. For several years half a bridge became a symbol for the futility of university life. Students called it The Bridge to Nowhere.

But the bridge has a deeper, almost mystical meaning for most cultures. The bridge symbolizes the link between what is perceived and what is beyond perception. In Longfellow’s words: “The grave itself is but a covered bridge, leading from light to light, through a brief darkness.”

In Teutonic culture the rainbow bridge led warriors to Valhalla. For the people of Israel, the rainbow was the sign of covenant between the Creator and his people, and for the Chinese a sign denoting the union of heaven and earth.

The deep religious meaning of the sign is conveyed in the gospel hymn “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” In “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” a novel about a bridge disaster that killed five people, Thornton Wilder conveys the mystic connection of the bridge symbol: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

The symbol has its darker side as well. In many cultures, evil spirits are believed to haunt bridges, so we should not be surprised to hear local fisherman suggest there is a curse on the Skyway.  Many legends tell of bridges that were supposedly constructed with the help of the devil. Such folktales are reflected in the children’s story “Three Billy Goats Gruff.”

Maybe it is this darker side that gives us nightmares about bridges. My barber told me this story: “For years my wife would have terrible dreams about driving over wooden bridges and falling off.  Sometimes when we would come to a bridge she would start yelling and closing her eyes. I might have to get out of the car and walk up on the bridge to assure her it was safe.”

“When I think of bridges,” says psychologist Maria Santa-Maria, an expert in dream analysis, “I think of the ability to get you from one place to another. It can be a positive statement. But if a person is losing it, he may dream that he’s falling off or sinking. I’ll ask that person, ‘What are you afraid of? What is on the other side?”

But what if the bridge falls down? Not just in a child’s nursery rhyme, but in real life.

History is full of fallen bridges. A hundred years ago, according to one estimate, one of every four bridges fell down. And since 1940 there have been at least six major bridge disasters in the United States alone.

Still, we expect our bridges to stand. If we can’t trust a bridge, what can we trust? And that’s what is driving this community crazy. “There is a sense of dread that comes from something like this,” says Santa-Maria. “We ask ourselves if there’s anything we can be sure of. It really challenges our sense of security at a very basic level. It reminds us of our vulnerability. Bridges do fall. There is no 100 percent security in life.”

Where does that leave those who would like to get across? People are developing their own defense mechanisms. A newspaper editor who must drive across the bridge to work has equipped her car with life preservers. She figures that by reducing the frightening experience to absurdity, she will be better able to deal with it.

A dozen members of a women’s club in St. Petersburg pulled out of a planned outing to a Sarasota dinner theater because it involved a bus trip across the bridge. They forfeited $20 each by doing so.

There are those who claim they will pull over to the side of the bridge if they see a ship coming, even if that causes a serious traffic problem. And there are those who like my co-workers, will suffer through it if a trip across the bridge because necessary. “I’ve always been uneasy about,” she says. “My palms would get sweaty. I’d be taking one hand off the wheel to wipe it off. One time I got to the top of the bridge when the fog socked in. I couldn’t see anything. So I coasted to a halt on the incline. I became so fearful I froze. My daughter yelled. So now I sing loud and chew gum when I cross. It takes my mind off the feeling I have that something is trying to pull me off the bridge.”

Sing loud and chew gum.

What I have been struggling to say is this: It’s OK to be a little crazy about the bridge. Bridges are constant reminders of our mortality, of the thin barriers between us and our destruction. And now 35 are dead. They were terrible deaths. Remember Richard Hornbuckle’s nightmarish vision: “Suddenly, I saw a blank – just a blank space.  It was all down. There was nothing there.”

St. Augustine, upon hearing a man had fallen to his death off a bridge, expressed our great anxiety about bridges and death: “The mercy of God may be found between the bridge and the stream.”

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute.  He is the author of many books, including Writing Tools and Murder Your Darlings.  He can be reached at rclark@poynter.org.

 

 

 

 

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