Monday, May 9 marks the 42nd anniversary of the Skyway Bridge disaster.
On his first try, Charles McGarrah bombed out of college. A devastating breakup, followed by the death of his beloved grandmother had rocked him, emotionally, and he found himself too depressed and distracted to keep his grades up. So in 1975, the St. Petersburg native was politely asked to leave Florida State University.
But somewhere, somehow, Charles McGarrah found a reserve of inner strength, and re-applied to the College of Social Work. The dean, much to the young man’s astonishment and delight, agreed to give him a second chance. Charles McGarrah was 20 years old.
So he moved his stuff into a dorm room and considered his future, such as it was. “I really didn’t have a purpose, per se, other than making the best of what I could make out of being back at the university,” McGarrah recalls.
Then he met Wanda Faye Smith, a pretty 18-year-old from Fort Lauderdale. She lived in the same dorm building.
“She was a beautiful person, wonderful in all ways,” McGarrah says. “We all have our faults, but I didn’t see any in her. I mostly saw that she was driven, she was dedicated and committed to whatever she put her mind and heart towards. And she really saved me, to tell you the truth.”
Charles McGarrah, Boca Ciega High Class of ’72, would go on to receive a Masters in social work from FSU; in 2015, he retired after 38 years working for the university, most recently as Director of Withdrawal Services in the Dean of Students’ office.
He credits Wanda Faye Smith for setting him on the road to success.
“The first time I met her, I didn’t care much for her,” McGarrah laughs. “And I made a promise that I wouldn’t ever have anything to do with her.”
Wanda softened his resolve. “She sat me down and said ‘Hey, you’ve got to put it in your mind that you want to do this.’ And she gave me a strict regimen: You will not be playing basketball. You will be studying. You will do this, you will do that … she believed in me.”
She was, he insists, a great motivator. He loved to listen to her talk. About anything and everything.
Once, during a serious discussion, she told him she knew she would not live to see her 25th birthday.
“I said ‘Why do you say that? Nobody knows when they’re going to leave this earth! What gives you the right to make that statement?’
“I never found out where that came from. I went back and forth with her. But finally, I found myself falling in love with her.”
She also proclaimed that she would never get married, nor would she consider bringing a child into this hard world. He argued about that, too.
But just as Wanda had an effect on Charles, so Charles had an effect on Wanda. Late in 1978, they said their marriage vows privately; then they made it legal, with family and everything, right there in Tallahassee.
Daughter MaNesha Yingko McGarrah was born on Oct. 3, 1979.
Life was beautiful. “There was no strife whatsoever,” he remembers. “We never argued with each other, and when we made a decision, we made a decision together.” In 1980, Wanda was accepted into the College of Education Masters program.
Wanda’s sister Blanche called in April to tell Wanda that a surprise party was in the works for their mother’s birthday, May 14. She was hoping Wanda and Charles could come down, and show off the baby.
But money was tight, and their car was in no condition to make such a drive. Maybe next year, Charles told Wanda.
Two weeks later, Blanche called again and pleaded. “I see in your eyes that you really want to go,” Charles said to his wife afterwards. “We’ll find the money. I’ll buy a bus ticket and send you home.”
He had just started working in the USF Registrar’s Office, and wasn’t eligible for vacation time. So she and MaNesha would have to make the bus journey without him.
“About a week before she was getting ready to go, she had a dream,” McGarrah recalls. “She said ‘I was dreaming that I was falling. There was a lot of people around me.’
“She said ‘Promise me, that if anything ever happened to me, you will re-marry.’ I said no, I can’t do that, because nothing is ever going to happen to you.’”
He drove them to the Tallahassee Greyhound station around midnight. At the counter, he asked the clerk if the Fort Lauderdale bus was routed east across Interstate 10, towards Jacksonville.
“He said yes. So in my mind, I’m thinking it’s going south down I-95. I didn’t know it was being re-routed through St. Pete.”
McGarrah put his wife and daughter aboard Greyhound 4508, making sure Wanda had the little bag of fruit they’d purchased for the trip. “I was getting ready to leave,” he says. “I gave her a kiss, gave the baby a kiss, and she said ‘I wish you were coming with us.’
“I said ‘You know, Wanda, this bus is going all the way to Jacksonville. The driver is going to come around for tickets, and I’m not going to have a ticket, and I’m going to have to walk all the way back home to Tallahassee.’
“She laughed, and I laughed. She said ‘Yeah … but I wish you were coming with us.’”
He left the bus, walked to his car and drove home to grab a few hours’ sleep. He did not watch the Greyhound pull out of the station.
Around lunchtime, in his car, he heard the news about the Skyway Bridge collapse. “That was a terrible accident,” he thought, and returned to campus. He didn’t think any more about it – Wanda’s bus was traveling down the other side of the state.
Later, at the couple’s apartment, the phone was ringing as he walked in the front door. He had asked Wanda to call when they arrived in Fort Lauderdale, so he figured it was her.
Instead, it was another sister, Jackie, calling to report they hadn’t turned up in Fort Lauderdale yet.
“I knew Wanda to be a joker at times. I said, ‘Put her on. I know she’s there.’
Big sister Blanche got on the line and said she was serious, Wanda and the baby weren’t there.
“And when she said that, it clicked in my head … Blanche, I said, I wonder if she was on the bus that went off the Skyway Bridge?”
Saturday morning, he contacted the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office. After he explained the reason for his call, McGarrah was asked to describe the clothes his wife and daughter were wearing. He did.
And the officer said ‘Mr. McGarrah, I’m so sorry, but we have the baby. But we do not have your wife.’ And that’s how I found out. That was the reality.
“It was probably a week, week and a half, before they found Wanda. She was the next to last person to be found.”
Wanda Faye Smith McGarrah was 24 years old. Just a few months shy of the 25th birthday she’d told him she’d never reach.
Picking up and moving on was torture, McGarrah swears – “Am I a husband or not a husband? A father or not a father? Why do I exist?” – and he thought, on more than one occasion, of suicide.
But he also thought of Wanda, his biggest cheerleader, his motivator, his best friend, and decided to go back to school and get his Masters. “I just kept busy, and kept around friends. I talked a lot about them. Even when they didn’t want to hear it any more.”
Charles and Barbara Dixon McGarrah have been happily married for 38 years now. “I remember the first couple of years after we married, I would talk about Wanda, and the baby, and I had pictures of them up all over the place.”
His wife, he said, talked him through it – talked him off the precipice – for weeks, months, years, as long as it took. “The more I talked, the more she listened, and more pictures came down. And finally, I had talked everything out. I couldn’t talk about it any more.”
Catalyst Senior writer and 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).