It was the Friday before Mother’s Day, and six students from Alabama’s Tuskegee University were traveling home to Florida together, ready after their long journey to get off the Greyhound bus, stretch their weary legs, breathe the fresh air and hug their moms.
Fifteen minutes after they departed the St. Petersburg station, they were all dead.
On May 9, 1980 – 39 years ago this week – an errant phosphate freighter heading east to the Port of Tampa was blown out of the shipping channel during a sudden, violent squall. The 606-foot vessel, MV Summit Venture, was approaching the Sunshine Skyway Bridge when the sky turned black, the radar failed and the bully wind changed direction in a heartbeat. There was no time to stop or turn the ship around.
At 7:34 a.m., Summit Venture clipped a support pier, shearing it off 54 feet above the waterline, and 1,300 feet of bridge twisted, groaned and fell into the churning water below.
There were two spans then, identical twins, and it was the western span, with traffic heading south across Tampa Bay, that splintered. Within two minutes eight vehicles dropped 150 feet from the shredded apex of the bridge and hit the water. The Greyhound with 26 people aboard – including the Tuskegee students – was the last to fall. It inverted and struck the bay on its roof.
Thirty-five people died, from blunt force trauma, drowning or a combination of the two. The sole survivor had been in the first car; it rode down with the asphalt and steel, sailed into space and slammed against the great black hull of Summit Venture, ricocheting off and sinking to the bottom of the channel. Gulfport resident Wesley MacIntire, who’d been driving to his job in Manatee County, escaped.
Everyone who lived in the bay area in 1980 remembers where they were when they heard about the Skyway disaster. The shock was great. It was the end of our innocence; sudden violence and loss on this scale was new.
Here are 10 key things about the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster and its aftermath:
- The National Weather Service did not issue a maritime warning about the squall that morning until well after the collision. That’s how sudden it was.
- Tampa Bay harbor pilot John Lerro, the 39-year-old at the controls of Summit Venture, was vilified by the media, and the public, and scapegoated by the state’s Department of Professional Regulation, which publicly criticized him and stripped him of his license. Despite the stigma that (inexplicably) exists to this day, Lerro was not intoxicated at the time – he was, in fact, a teetotaler – nor was he the worst of the then-18 pilots on the Tampa Bay bar. Piloting was, and is, an extremely difficult and stressful job, and accidents do happen – but in 1980, Lerro had one of the cleanest records of all the local pilots.
- The first two-lane span, crossing 15 miles of open water, was dedicated in 1954. The second span, which 1960s governor Haydon Burns fast-tracked in advance of the arrival of Walt Disney World – clearly, there would soon be lots more tourists, and their cars, in Florida – opened two years after originally planned, because shortcuts taken in its early stages caused one of the main piers to tilt. This was a $3 million error.
- The Florida Department of Transportation was aware that the two spans – the aging original, and its more contemporary twin – were showing the effects of exposure to the harsh marine environment and were, in fact, slowly falling apart. Concerns about the lack of “protection” from large ships were voiced. Nothing was done. Moving at slow ahead, about nine knots, and blown south out of the channel, Summit Venture’s 20,000 tons snapped the Skyway’s Pier 2S like a toothpick.
- Lerro was exonerated, and his license returned, after weather experts proved in court that an explosive weather cell called a macroburst, carried along inside a normal squall, had unloaded right over Summit Venture just before it was to pass under the bridge. The incident was ruled an act of God. Lerro returned to work.
- Within seven months, he began to notice tremors in his extremities. A doctor diagnosed the early stages of multiple sclerosis. Soon, Lerro was physically unable to perform the duties required of a ship’s pilot, and he turned in his license. He went back to school, earning a Master’s in Counseling from the University of South Florida, but in the end, he was too weak to work in the profession. Lerro died in 2002, still haunted by the events of May 9, 1980.
- Wah Kwong Shipping and Investments, the company that employed the Chinese crew, was found guilty of negligence; Captain Liu Hsuing Chu, the court ruled, should have exercised his right to take back command of his ship once Lerro expressed concern about the worsening weather. The safety of the vessel remained in his hands at all times.
- Damages amounted to approximately $300,000 for the families of each of the 35 victims; sole survivor Wesley MacIntire received $175,000, much of which went toward therapists’ bills – he was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and suffered from debilitating nightmares the rest of his life.
- Wah Kwong and its subsidiary, Hercules Carriers, were directed to pay the State of Florida $19 million for the broken bridge plus associated costs.
- The present Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which replaced both early spans, cost $224 million and opened in April, 1987. It is well-protected against incoming or outgoing ships. It was then-governor Bob Graham who made the decision to tear down and modernize, rather than re-build the twin Skyway spans as they were. “While there was a lot of nostalgia associated with the old bridge, it was an old bridge,” Graham recalled in 2013. “It was, at that point, thirty-plus years old – plus, it was not the most elegant design.” He was keenly aware, he continued, that if the Skyway was rebuilt as it was, local motorists would have to look at it every time they crossed the bay, and be reminded of the horrors of May 9, 1980.
Bill DeYoung is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down (University Press of Florida). He will discuss the tragedy Thursday, on the 39th anniversary, in a sold-out program at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.