John Lerro got a raw deal.
The harbor pilot who was in command of the massive freighter Summit Venture when it rammed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1980, resulting in the deaths of 35 motorists, spent the rest of his life in a self-imposed purgatory.
Although he was held blameless in court, Lerro – nearly 20 years after his death – continues to be vilified through public opinion. He is still, to this day, called an incompetent, and a drunk, and worse.
None of it was true, as I’ve been shouting from the rooftops since the 2013 publication of my book Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down.
I pored over trial transcripts, court documents and official reports, and interviewed dozens of people – Lerro’s family, his close friends and his business associates. I talked with judges, attorneys and officers from the Coast Guard Board of Inquiry. And I read every interview Lerro himself ever did.
To say that the collision haunted him forever would be an understatement. For legal vindication could not erase the memory of that awful day, and the fact that he was at the center of it.
Thirty-five people died. And John Lerro’s life was ruined.
Opening Thursday at Studio Grand Central in St. Pete, Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge is a one-person play in which Lerro – portrayed by actor Michael Horn – takes us through his life before, during and after May 9, 1980.
To find Lerro’s voice, I distilled information from all of my sources, paying special attention to the court testimony. When Lerro takes you through the final moments of the intense storm that caused his ship to stray off course, you’re hearing, verbatim, the way he described it on the stand.
About 80 minutes long with no intermission, Mayday is an emotional roller coaster. There are moments of levity, along with the solemnity. Things about him nobody could ever have guessed.
I like to think the man’s humanity comes shining through.
The play was written in 2020, for the 40th anniversary of the Skyway tragedy, but Covid scotched those plans. With the insanely talented Roxanne Fay directing, and Michael onstage, we presented it for three performances last June at another venue.
Watch a scene from Mayday:
All three shows sold out, so we immediately began thinking about bringing it back.
The Studio Grand Central production runs through Feb. 27. There are 12 shows altogether; info and tickets are here.
Roxanne wasn’t available to direct this time out, which left it to yours truly. Michael, tech designer Mario Gonzalez and I had already worked together, so we had a solid framework on which to build.
I haven’t changed the direction much from what Roxanne developed (if it ain’t broke, etc.) but it’s noticeably different in a few places.
If the audience doesn’t come away with a fresh appreciation for Captain Lerro, and what he went through, I haven’t done my job.
Bill DeYoung is Senior Writer and Editor of the St. Pete Catalyst.