Part two in a series.
A few weeks before he died, Jim Pryor was taking a break from working in the yard of the Seminole home he shared with his wife and 18-year-old son.
Daughter Tammie, the eldest of the three Pryor kids, was 22, married and living across town. She dropped by that afternoon for a visit, and found her father stretched out on his back in the driveway, in the sun, looking lazily up at the clouds.
“I’ve just been thinking about how great my life has been,” he told her.
Pryor, 43, was an engineer at Kee Manufacturing, a Bradenton foundry that made lawnmower parts. He enjoyed his job, he explained.
Tammie asked him about his commute, 40 miles each way – wasn’t he kind of sick of that? Especially because he had to cross the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, across 15 miles of open water, twice every day.
At its zenith, the bridge carried vehicular traffic 150 feet over Tampa Bay; for many, that was a singularly stressful stretch of road.
Not at all, Pryor replied. “I get a sense of peace driving over the Skyway,” he told her. Most days, he would be on the bridge as the sun was rising over the Tampa skyline, and – because he was a workaholic and usually stayed late in Bradenton – as it was setting in the west, over the Gulf of Mexico.
This exchange has replayed over and over in Tammie Pryor King’s mind in the 40 years since her father perished in the collapse of the Skyway Bridge, one of 35 victims of a terrible confluence of bad weather, bad timing and unbelievably bad luck.
He was, she remembers, a quiet man, even-tempered, always willing to lend a hand – he’d coached her softball team and later, did the same for her sister Jamie, who was also married and all moved out by 1980.
Brother Tommy was the youngest, a senior at Seminole High. He played baseball, basketball and football, all with support and encouragement from Dad.
There’s been a hole in this family for 40 years.
“Mostly, I think about my kids not knowing him,” King says. “Because he was really a great guy. I think about them missing his influence.”
James Aaron Pryor had a routine. Up before the sun, showered, dressed and out the door. He liked to have breakfast at Skyway Jack’s, the U.S. 19 diner a mile or so from the Skyway Bridge onramp. Most days, he was at his desk in Bradenton by half-past seven.
On Friday, May 9, 1980, an especially rainy morning, he was nearly at the restaurant when he remembered he had taken a mower home, to test it on his own yard, and was supposed to bring it back that day.
Pryor’s wife Marlene would later tell investigators that he returned home to hurriedly bundle the mower into the trunk of his El Camino; the staff at Skyway Jack’s remembered him that morning, too, tucking into his bacon and eggs.
“I woke up about 7:15,” Tammie Pryor King recalls. “It was storming. When I got to work at 9, the doctor I worked for said ‘Did you hear that the Skyway Bridge was hit? Do you want to go home?’ I said, ‘Why would I want to go home – my dad’s already at work.’ I wasn’t really worried.’”
Next, she called her mother, who said yes, she’d heard, but of course Jim, she was sure, was safe and dry in his office at Kee.
“Then she called my dad’s work. And he was not there. And we both started to get concerned. But my dad was the kind of guy that would help anyone, so we thought ‘he’s probably out there helping people, recovering … he’s just that kind of person.’ That was my way of dealing with it at that point, I’m sure.”
As the hours clicked by, with no word from her father, King and her mother repeatedly called the office in Bradenton. No one had heard from him.
In those pre-cable TV, pre-Internet days, the local TV stations were broadcasting nothing but live Skyway coverage. The number of fatalities was mostly speculation that first day.
King and her husband drove out to Mullet Key, where bodies, along with items that had floated to the surface, were being ferried from the bridge site.
“They had a manned trailer there, and tents set up, and there were a lot of reporters and everything. I can still remember that day so clearly. I went up to a cop and said ‘I want to find out if my dad’s out there helping, or what.’ He looked at me kind of strange.
“A couple other cops came over, and somebody said ‘What kind of car was your dad driving? I said an El Camino. White with red interior. I told them everything. At that point, they did not know what cars were down on the bottom.”
They asked King for a description of her father. He had a small steel plate in under the skin of his left cheekbone, she explained, the result of reconstructive surgery following a sports accident in his Michigan boyhood.
“At that point,” King remembers, “they were contacting the morgue. Right then. And the morgue said ‘No, we don’t have anybody here like that.’ And I said ‘well, that’s good, right? Right?’”
She knew she was going to have to report back to the family.
“I walked over to this big pile, and there was a briefcase. And I’m like, gosh, that kinda looks like my dad’s briefcase.’ I asked, ‘Am I allowed to touch anything?’ and the guy said yeah, so I opened the briefcase.”
She looked inside. “It was his.”
She succumbed to rising dread, mixed with denial. “I thought, he could’ve swam somewhere. He could still be out there. He could still be alive.”
It was the next day, Saturday, when a sheriff’s deputy appeared at her door – just like on TV, she remembers thinking – and said they had located the El Camino Classic, white with red interior, on the bay bottom. Her father’s body was trapped inside the mangled vehicle which, it was later deduced, had been the second of eight cars to fall.
“I think everyone handles things differently,” King muses. “For my brother – he was 18 and missed out on a lot with his dad – it was really hard. And he still, up until they pulled the car out, was saying ‘Maybe he’s down there still alive and he’s living in a bubble.’ He still wanted that.
“For me, because I was the one that did a lot of the recovery, and I was the one that went to the morgue, I think I had a lot more closure than they did. As the oldest child, you think you always have to be the strong one and take responsibility for a lot of things.”
It would be Monday before they untangled and raised the wreckage of the El Camino, with Jim Pryor’s body pinned inside. “So he was underwater from Friday morning until Monday afternoon,” King says.
Because they had discovered his wallet on him, with his identification, authorities did not ask Pryor’s daughter – or any member of the family – to identify the body. She unwitting saw his autopsy photos when a sheriff’s deputy was going through her father’s case file. Those images have stayed with her, too.
“They handed me a manila envelope with his possessions,” King says. “It had his wallet with his license, his wedding ring that they cut off, and his underwear. It didn’t have any of his other clothes in there.
“I looked at the envelope and I thought, my God. This is what’s left of my dad’s life?”
Two months later, Jamie gave birth to a baby girl. James Pryor’s second grandchild.
For the Pryor family, life went on, as it will, after that horrible day. May 9, 1980 faded into black memory.
But there’s no closure. There are constant reminders – some subtle, some painfully strong – of the loving husband, father, grandfather, friend, coach and cheerleader they never saw again. “And he’s the one that kept our extended family together, the ones in Michigan, and the others who came to Florida after we did,” King explains.
“And after that, unfortunately, it slowly changed. It just was never the same, because he was the glue that kept our family together.”
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).
Wednesday: ‘I guess it was just God’s will’
Read Part One here.