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The Skyway Bridge tragedy at 40: ‘I guess it was just God’s will’

Bill DeYoung

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Lynnwood Armstrong speaks during the dedication ceremony for the Sunshine Skyway memorial, May 9, 2015. Photo: Bridget Burke.

Part three in a series.

John H. Callaway Jr. Photo provided by the Callaway family

It was late in the afternoon of Thursday, May 8, 1980 when 15 or so students from Central Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute climbed aboard a Greyhound bus destined for Florida. The school year was finally over, and the kids were anxious to get home to see their families. And Sunday was Mother’s Day.

Among the excited group were best buddies Lynnwood Armstrong, 20, and John Callaway, 19. They had a plan in place – Lynnwood was going to disembark in Tampa, switch buses and spend the day with his mother in Plant City. John’s plan was to continue on to Miami, to his parents’ home.

After a day or so, Lynnwood would hop on another Greyhound headed south, and stay with the Callaway family for the duration of the summer. John’s parents loved Lynnwood like a son. The young men intended to find summer jobs and buy a car; in the fall, they were going to get out of the Tuskegee dorms and find a place together, off-campus.

“We were brothers in spirit,” Armstrong, 60, says today. “We had a lot in common.”

It was dark, and raining hard, when the bus arrived in Tampa, around 6:30 a.m. John got off and helped Lynnwood move his suitcase onto the Plant City bus, before re-boarding Greyhound 4508 for Miami.

Armstrong can close his eyes and go back to that moment. “We just said ‘See you later.’ We would never say goodbye to each other, we’d always say ‘See you later.’”

At 7:34 a.m., the freighter Summit Venture struck a support pier holding up the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Within two minutes, eight vehicles had driven blindly off the break in the roadway and fallen 150 feet into Tampa Bay. The last to drop was Greyhound 4508.

All 26 people on the bus died on impact, including John Holt Callaway Jr.

They were both juniors in 1980; Lynwood Armstrong was an architecture major, while John Callaway was studying mechanical engineering.

Never once, Armstrong says, has he considered the “what ifs” – what if he hadn’t left the bus in Tampa? What if John had come along with him to Plant City? What if they’d stayed another day or two in Alabama?

“I never thought about myself, really, if it could have been different or whatever,” he explains. “I guess it was just God’s will.”

He prefers to focus on his friend, the outgoing, athletic kid from Titusville who played singles with Tuskegee’s tennis team.

“We met our freshman year playing basketball, a little pickup game,” Armstrong recalls. “We were playing against each other, and we got into an argument, of course. And from that point, we became real good friends.”

So good that John had spent Spring Break that year with Lynnwood and his mother in Plant City, instead of visiting his own family in Miami.

That’s always been a dark cloud over Lynnwood Armstrong’s conscience. “He came straight home with me. He didn’t have a chance to be with his parents. And I felt bad about that, because they didn’t get a chance to see him again. That’s something I deal with. I feel bad about that because to me, that was a selfish thing.

“And after Spring Break, we left and went back to Tuskegee.”

Among the Tuskegee students who perished aboard Greyhound 4508: Duane Adderley, 21 (left); LaVerne Daniels, 20; and Yvonne Johnson, 22. Also killed were Alphonso Blidge, 22; Sharon Dixon, 21; and 19-year-old John H. Callaway, Jr.

He knew some of the other kids on the bus, but not all of them. These days, he can recall their faces, if not their names. They passed the time by playing cards, reading, talking, laughing – and fitfully sleeping.

“Along the way, people reached their destinations,” he remembers. Many got off at Montgomery. One by one, two by two, the students disembarked at smaller towns – Ozark, or Dothan, or Bainbridge.

They arrived in Tallahassee around 1 a.m. A young mother got on, carrying her infant daughter.

“By the time we got to Florida, there was 10 of us left on the bus,” Armstrong says. “Four of us got off in Tampa. Then there were six left.”

As Lynnwood’s transfer bus pulled away, in the direction of Plant City, the rain picked up.

“The weather was bad all the way,” he recalls, “and it had stopped blowing, but when I got to my porch, it started raining again. So I went to sleep, and when I woke up, it was like nothing happened. No bad weather or anything.”

Soon enough, he was glued to the TV. The first reports indicated that it was likely a Trailways bus that had fallen from the Skyway. Still, as the hours passed, as Mr. and Mrs. Callaway waited down in Miami, there was no sign of their son.

“I had been communicating with John’s parents during the time, because they weren’t telling them anything,” Armstrong recalls. “I made a few calls to the bus station – they weren’t telling me anything. And his father had went down to the bus station in Miami. Like the other parents, waiting there to see what was going on.”

The wait was excruciating. Greyhound 4508 had not been seen or heard from, but … was there a chance? Where was the bus? Where was John?

Then came Sunday. Mother’s Day. “When I saw them pull the bus up out of the water,” Armstrong recalls, “I remembered the bus number. And I knew.

“So I forwarded that information to his mother. I told her on the phone, and man … it was rough.”

 

At the 2015 memorial dedication: Lynnwood Armstrong and Grace Callaway. Photo: Bridget Burke

Now 94, Grace Callaway keeps a scrapbook full of memories of her lost son, her youngest, the one she and her late husband John Sr. called Chip (as in “off the old block”).

“I’ll tell you what bothers me,” says the retired educator. “When we have these dreary, rainy, sort of stormy days, like the day he died. I remember being at my school and I was just so happy all day long that I was going to see Chip when I got home. And it was raining all that day. I think it’s hard for people to understand.”

Callaway, who lives near Altamonte Springs, has kept in close contact with Tampa-based Lynnwood Armstrong. “It’s not unusual, in the culture that I grew up in, for there to be people in your life, who are not related to you, who are as devoted as children,” she explains. “Or more so.”

He calls her several times a year, Callaway adds. “And not just on Mother’s Day.”

In 2015, they attended the dedication ceremony for the Skyway memorial together, in St. Petersburg.

Armstrong recently left the Florida Department of Transportation, where he worked as an oversight inspector on roads … and bridges. “I’ve worked out there on the new bridge a few times,” he says. “I’ve been up in the towers and everything. And overlooked the area.

“It’s not eerie. It’s just a calm feeling. I guess it’s a closeness. I’m at peace, just thinking that this was the last place … I think about the good times we had, the laughter. That type of stuff.”

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).

 

Thursday: Part Four

 

Read Part One here.

Read Part Two here.

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