St. Petersburg lost its innocence 43 years ago today.
A massive thundersquall formed in the pre-dawn hours, in the Gulf of Mexico southwest of Tampa Bay, so rapidly that the National Weather Service did not broadcast its existence until it had already passed through the area.
The damage on May 9, 1980 was unprecedented. The damage on May 9, 1980 was severe.
At approximately 7:33 a.m, the center of the storm, moving like a fox across a field, was over the twin spans of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Stitched inside the bustling fury was a microburst, an intensely concentrated cell of strong, erratic winds. At the moment it unleashed its pent-up energy, a 606-foot freighter was approaching the bridges from the west – headed to the Port of Tampa to pick up a load of crushed phosphate.
Even at 20,000 tons, the empty ship (M/V Summit Venture) was riding light and “high,” and susceptible to the muscular push and pull of the wind. The pilot – nearly blinded by the sudden storm, his shipboard radar obliterated – attempted to make an 18-degree turn to remain in the shipping channel and pass under the 150-foot high structures. He did not know that the ship was being blown off-course.
It all happened, the pilot, co-pilot and members of the crew would later testify, within a matter of two minutes.
It has passed into terrible, familiar legend now. The ship struck the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway. Nearly 1,300 feet of roadway twisted and groaned and fell into the bay.
Eight cars and a passenger bus sailed off the broken bridge at its highest point; 35 people lost their lives.
It remains the single greatest loss of life in local history. It remains the worst ship/bridge disaster in world history.
It was Mothers Day Weekend.
Bill DeYoung will discuss the Skyway tragedy Thursday at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Tickets for Happy Hour With the Historian are available here.