Since my book Skyway was published in 2013, I have spoken in front of hundreds, maybe thousands of Floridians through libraries, civic organizations, schools and book stores. Most people remember the horrific events of May 9, 1980, when a 20-ton freighter knocked down a massive segment of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge during a violent thunderstorm. Thirty-five souls were lost when seven cars and a Miami-bound Greyhound bus fell 150 feet into Tampa Bay.
I subtitled the book The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down because many of the facts of the case, the “true” story, had been blurred, changed or lost in the decades that had passed. As a journalist, I was determined to ferret out what had actually happened, before, during and after the incident, and write it all down once and for all.
For example, I still read on social media, whenever the subject comes up, that harbor pilot John Lerro was “drunk” that morning. The truth is, Captain Lerro was a teetotaler. He didn’t drink. As a matter of fact, he didn’t even drink coffee. He was a professional who’d taken those massive ships under that bridge, to and from the Port of Tampa, more than 800 times.
True, he wasn’t the best pilot on the Tampa bar – but according to incident records, he was far from the worst.
The storm – called a macroburst in the meteorological dictionary – descended on the ship when it was less than a mile from the Skyway. It takes those vessels at least a mile to come to a complete stop. The wind direction changed suddenly; Lerro made the most informed decision he could, given his circumstances (no functioning radar and zero visibility).
And in the end, he was fully exonerated. A lot of folks have forgotten that.
There are lots of little things like that in Skyway, facts unearthed through poring over thousands of pages of transcripts from the Coast Guard hearings, the accident reports, and the depositions of the lucky motorists who stopped in time, as the collapse was happening. And from Captain Lerro’s family, friends and co-workers.
I think we all owe it to ourselves to understand our shared history as residents of this wonderful community. Let’s get it right once and for all.
I took pretty much the same approach to Phil Gernhard, Record Man, which was published just this week. Gernhard was from Sarasota, but the things he accomplished during his years in St. Pete, as a Stetson law student, are worth knowing and understanding.
In the mid 1960s, Gernhard was one of the first people to take bay area rock ‘n’ roll bands – garage bands – into the recording studio. As a self-taught producer, he gave many of them their first break.
And one of his records, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” became the fastest-selling record of 1966. Co-written by Gernhard and Louisiana piano player Dick Holler, the novelty song about Snoopy, the daydreaming dog from Peanuts, was recorded at a little four-track studio on MacDill Avenue in Tampa.
It sold five million records around the world.
Holler wrote “Abraham, Martin and John” – still one of the most beloved songs in modern American history – in the back room of Gernhard’s office on 1st Avenue South in St. Pete. Gernhard brought the song to the singer Dion, and produced his groundbreaking hit recording.
Gernhard took Kent “Lobo” LaVoie (“Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”) and Jim Stafford (“Spiders and Snakes”), both from Winter Haven, to the top of the charts. He produced “Let Your Love Flow,” the worldwide Number One for Pasco County’s Bellamy Brothers.
On the home front, as a concert promoter Gernhard brought Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton’s Derek & the Dominos and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Tampa Bay for the first time.
The walk-up snack bar on Pass-a-Grille Beach, across the street from the Hurricane Restaurant? Gernhard built that.
Phil Gernhard, Record Man takes him from those early, innocent days to his lengthy stint as a senior player at Curb Records in Nashville, where he worked closely with Tim McGraw, Rodney Atkins and many others. He died 10 years ago.
Gernhard wasn’t an angel – many of his cheated artists and one or two of his ex-wives say so in the book – but his was a uniquely American story, uniquely Floridian, uniquely Tampa Bay.
And since there aren’t too many of those in the pop culture encyclopedia, I thought it deserved to be told.
Bill DeYoung, author of the acclaimed Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down, will introduce his new book at a free reading and launch party Friday, March 16 at 7 p.m. at thestudio@620.
Available from University Press of Florida: