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The Skyway Bridge tragedy at 40: ‘The elements had control of that vessel’

Bill DeYoung

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May 9, 1980. Summit Venture at rest, its port bow anchor pinned to the bottom by debris from the fallen Skyway span. The big yellow Buick belonged to St. Petersburg car dealer Paul "Dick" Hornbuckle; he and three friends escaped the vehicle after it slid to a stop 14 inches from the break. Photo: Florida Memory Project.

Part one in a series.

The latest advisory from the National Weather Service was several hours old when the freighter MV Summit Venture knocked down the west span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at 7:34 in the morning on May 9, 1980:

Small craft should exercise caution. Winds southerly increasing to 10 to 15 knots this morning. Seas increasing 4 to 6 feet today then diminishing tonight. Winds and seas higher near scattered thunderstorms today.

It wasn’t supposed to be there. Yet there it was, a squall of such intensity that visibility on Tampa Bay was reduced to practically zero, the wind in gusts of up to 70-75 miles per hour, hurricane force, a solid wall of blinding rain blown horizontally against the ship’s wheelhouse windows, swirling and angry and changing direction in an instant.

The storm was so sudden that John Lerro, the harbor pilot at the wheel of Summit Venture, had little to no time to prepare, and so violent that neither he, his co-pilot in training nor the all-Chinese crew had any inkling that the vessel, riding relatively light even at 20,000 tons, was being pushed south, out of the shipping channel, in erratic increments.

Eastbound from the Gulf of Mexico, Summit Venture needed to stay in the channel to safely pass under the two identical bridge spans, which were rendered invisible to the naked eye and on the ship’s radar screen, completely occluded by the deluge from the skies.

At 606 feet in length, Summit Venture would need nearly a mile to come to a complete stop, even if the pilot ordered the engine killed or thrown into reverse. Ships don’t have brakes. Dropping the anchors wouldn’t stop it. And at 7:23, the precise moment that Summit Venture was ambushed, it was already less than a mile from the side-by-side spans of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Forty years have passed since that dark, wet spring morning when Tampa Bay lost its innocence.

The magnitude of the tragedy took nearly a week to reveal itself, as bodies continued to wash up, unexpectedly, on nearby beaches and in leafy tangles of mangrove.

Just under 1,300 feet of over-water roadway fell when Summit Venture sheared off a support pier 54 feet above the waterline. This included more than half of the apex of the southbound Skyway, the southern slope, 150 feet over the water.

Tall enough to allow large oceangoing ships to pass through, to and from the deepwater port in Tampa – where Summit Venture was bound – and the smaller facility in Manatee County.

Tall enough so that eight cars and a passenger bus sailed off the break and struck the water in less than four seconds, and were practically destroyed on impact.

Thirty-five people died; 26 of them were on the bus, the last vehicle to plunge off the bridge. Many of them were headed for family reunions in South Florida on that Mother’s Day weekend.

It wasn’t technically a collision. Aboard Summit Venture, no one felt a shake or a shudder. The starboard bow had literally scraped alongside a secondary bridge support. Damage to the ship’s bow was minimal.

But the Skyway was built to withstand the weight of great vertical loads, from vehicular traffic, not a horizontal hit from 20,000 tons of steel.

The northbound span, less than 75 feet to the east, was untouched.

 

At 7:35, the National Weather Service issued a Severe Weather Warning:

At 7:30 a.m. scattered showers and a very few heavy thundershowers were embedded in a large area of rain that stretched across the state from St. Augustine and Titusville to Englewood and Cross City then west and southwest into the Gulf for 100 miles. Movement was to the east at 35 miles an hour.

By the time the Coast Guard, sheriff’s deputies and rescue divers arrived on the scene, within the first half hour, the weather cell had passed. The sun was shining.

At 8:35 – an hour after the Skyway fell – the NWS advisory reported:

A large area of rain and heavy thunderstorms continued to cover most of Central Florida … the area was moving rapidly to the east.

At the end of many months of speculation, accusations, finger-pointing and angry words in the media and other public forums, the incident was ruled an Act of God.

“I have never been engulfed by a storm or a weather system that had such accelerated intensity that this storm had,” co-pilot Bruce Atkins, who had 10 years’ experience as a ship’s master, testified. “The elements had control of that vessel at that time … There was just nothing that Captain Lerro or anybody could have done.”

Inside that fast-moving squall was a meteorological phenomenon known as a microburst, a powerful downburst that sends gusts of wind radially, in all directions.

It had not been detected in advance by the instruments available at the time; a local TV weatherman testified that he’d tracked it, in real time, using the new Doppler radar system.

Lerro, who had his license suspended pending the investigation, was allowed to go back to work. Criminal charges were never filed.

Construction began on a new structure, the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge, in 1982. It opened to the public in April, 1987, at a cost of $244 million, plus $41 million for an elaborate system of 36 protective concrete buffers, designed to deflect ships away from the vulnerable bridge piers.

The original Skyway spans – the first one was built in 1954, the doomed second in 1971 – had never been protected at all.

 

Tuesday: ‘He could’ve swam somewhere’

Catalyst arts editor 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, 2013).

 

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8 Comments
here we go

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Roy Clark

    May 4, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    This is some of the best writing on the Skyway Bridge disaster by an author who knows his stuff. Those of us living in St. Pete on that day will never forget what happened. That wind was blowing so strong that morning, that our window drapes blew parallel to the floor. I was running a writing seminar that week at the Poynter Institute with 15 reporters from around the country. More than half of them abandoned the seminar to cover the disaster. One who did not, Rick Zahler from Seattle, was disappointed in himself and vowed he would be ready next time.And he was — for Mt. St. Helens.

  2. Avatar

    Pamela Bickett

    May 4, 2020 at 4:23 pm

    Looking forward to reading this series. I moved here in 1996 and heard about this disaster. Driving across the Skyway is not one of my favorite things! Glad I don’t have to use it to commute on a daily basis.
    I can’t imagine being in that car and stopping just 14 inches from the edge. Wow…

  3. Avatar

    Patrick Collins

    May 5, 2020 at 8:55 am

    I was working for a car dealer at the time, 16years old. We took a boat up to Tampa the day before and we’re gonna spend the night and drive home early the next morning. Drove home that night instead and when they said the skyway bridge was down we all look at each other in disbelief, probably would have been coming back about the time the accident happened. The preist who stopped when he saw the bus disappear and stop traffic married my brother and his wife a week before. So sorry for everyone who lost a loved one that horrible day🙏

  4. Avatar

    Ron Ogden

    May 5, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    Dense.

  5. Avatar

    Barbara Jameson

    May 5, 2020 at 8:06 pm

    I was working in a kidney dialysis manufacturing plant when this happened. I was commenting on how bad the weather was but when the news break came on and announce that the Skyway was down it made us all sick with fear on what would be the truth of the event that happened. Once in a while I go over this Goliath and still feel the people that died. There is no horrific image I can imagine other than falling of this bridge. In the DARK. God give peace to those people in the bus. It’s a long way down. The recovery of them was very hard for the people who had to do it. May God rest the souls of the others who died alone. I think nobody in that time will ever be the same after witnessing this bridge The W. Bill Dean go down. May 9th 1980…… I was 20 then, now I’m 61. Time doesn’t fade those images.

  6. Avatar

    Hugh Hazeltine

    May 6, 2020 at 4:18 pm

    I just finished reading the NTSB report on this accident.

    The author states: “It wasn’t technically a collision.” The pilot stationed two sailors at the bow to act as look outs and to be ready to drop anchors if needed. He ordered anchors dropped about 600′ before impact. One anchor was deployed and both men ducked for cover as 100′ of the bridge fell on the bow. It did 1 million 1980 dollars in damage to the ship.

    “Incident was ruled an act of God” This is from the Probable Cause section:
    the failure of the pilot to abandon the transit when visual and radar navigational references for the channel and the bridge were lost in
    the heavy rain.

    The NWS was also criticized for a late weather warning. Tampabay has 90 days of thunderstorms a year, ¼ of a year. This type of weather is not outside what can be expected.

    All accidents are a chain of events. It is even more interesting when the decision making is examined that put a 600′ ship 1 mile from the Skyway without
    any visual or radar reference and the pilot decides to proceed. This is pre GPS.

    Joe Hamilton, please don’t publish more of this without careful vetting.

    • Bill DeYoung

      Bill DeYoung

      May 7, 2020 at 9:33 am

      There were a lot of mitigating factors involved in that last stretch of Summit Venture’s transit. Was it prudent to continue when the weather became so violent at Buoy 16? The NTSB and the Coast Guard both criticized Lerro’s failure to abort the transit, and called it a contributing factor, not the proximate cause. But those were not fault-finding investigations.

      Lerro was contending with the impending passing of an outgoing oil tanker, westbound, which he could not see or contact. So going hard aport and coming about in the channel was not an option. Turning starboard would have presented a broadside to the wind out of the south southwest, and likely would have blown the ship into the bridge. He had no choice but to keep going forward. He was looking for the turn buoys, for the 18-degree turn that would keep him in the channel and under the Skyway. That’s why the bosun and the carpenter were sent to the bow, as lookouts – they were also instructed to make ready the anchors, just in case. A brief clear radar sweep showed they were still in the channel and were indeed at the turn buoys. As the weather cleared, and Lerro could actually see the bridge, he realized where they were and ordered the anchors dropped, and the engines full astern. It was too late, and only Sit, the bosun, was able to let his anchor (port) go. He ducked for cover under the anchor windlass. Lok, the carpenter, ran for his life. The bridge fell on top of the loosed anchor, pinning the chain, in effect stopping the vessel. Photographs show Summit Venture’s bow came perilously close to clipping the northbound bridge as well.

      It’s important to remember that these events all transpired within the span of two or three minutes.

      The Act of God ruling was made by Judge Chris Bentley in December 1980, holding Lerro legally blameless, and clearing the way for him to get his license back from the Department of Professional Regulation.

      Summit Venture spent a month in drydock, repairing the $1 million damage to the starboard bow. Compared to the damage to the bridge, and the cost in human lives, that was indeed minimal.

  7. Avatar

    Sierra MacIntire

    May 9, 2020 at 10:14 am

    Hi, I am Sierra MacIntire. Great Granddaughter of Wes. Unfortunately I was never able to meet him, and have only heard stories. This is amazing. You really captured everything I have heard and more. I can’t wait to share this with my future children. ❤️

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