Today, May 9, is the 42nd anniversary of the day the Sunshine Skyway Bridge fell.
At 7:34 a.m. Friday, May 9, 1980, Wesley MacIntire was driving his Ford Courier pickup over the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, headed for his job at a meat-delivery business. Just after he threw his two quarters into the tollbooth basket, he would later testify, the steady rain turned cyclonic.
As I went way up to the top of the bridge, the center part where the grating work was, the pickup started to bob up and down. And at the time, I thought it was just the wind blowing up through the bridge, or something like that, made it blow around. But then I started to drop over a high part, and at this point I looked and there I seen the ship. And I knew what had happened.
Testimony, Marine Board of Investigation/June 4, 1980
Instead of the familiar downhill slope of the Skyway, and the flat, winding causeway that would carry him to the other side of Tampa Bay, MacIntire saw the black broadside of a massive ship, the words SUMMIT VENTURE painted in white letters along its bow.
I hit my brakes, but I guess the truck wasn’t even on the bridge any more. I was in the air, probably. And the only thing I remember is saying “Oh God!,” and I felt a thud, which I believe, or thought maybe I hit … it bounced off the ship or something. After that, I just remember sinking in the water.
The 56-year-old had been trained as a swimmer in the Navy – before there were things called SEALs – and it all came back to him as he found himself inside a broken vehicle filling quickly with water, on the muddy bottom of the shipping channel.
It was probably no more than two minutes, but it seemed like an eternity, as he bent the buckled frame of the driver’s seat door, squeezed himself out and swam as hard as he could for the weak rays of sunlight at the surface. He exploded from the water, vomited and dogpaddled.
Wes MacIntire understood what had happened to him, even as his brain struggled to make sense of it. He grabbed hold of a section of silver steel protruding from the water, looked up and noticed a large yellow sedan, 150 feet up and stopped awkwardly at the very edge of the jagged bridge.
“I guess,” he thought to himself, “I’m the only fool who went in the water.” Still, he looked around for heads bobbing in the choppy water, someone, anyone he could rescue.
He was fished out by Summit Venture crew members. They threw him a rope ladder, which he wrapped himself in, and they hauled him up the side of the ship like a prize catch. Aside from a nasty gash over his right eye, and salt water in his lungs, Wes MacIntire was undamaged. Physically.
He was not the only person who went in the water. He was the first of 36. And all the others were dead.
“He was like my best friend,” McIntire’s daughter Donna Yeomans says. “He loved to make people laugh and have a good time. He was a character. A good old Joe.”
Her parents, Wesley and Betty, had moved to Gulfport from their native Massachusetts in 1976. After three decades as a long-distance truck driver, Wes was officially retired, but to make ends meet, he took the job at Palmetto Meat Dispatch, performing fleet maintenance and driving when it was needed.
The younger of the McIntires’ two children, Donna was 32, a single mother living in Brimfield, Mass. She was at her job in a flower shop when a family friend called to tell her about the Skyway accident. Her mother, he said, was hysterical: Wes hadn’t showed at Palmetto Meat Dispatch, and no one had heard from him.
“It was like I was in this bubble – I told everybody to get away from me, so I could concentrate on getting a flight out of there,” Yeomans says.
She was getting ready to head to the airport when the next call came: Her father was in St. Anthony’s Hospital, bruised and shaken up but not otherwise injured.
In her dad’s room, “we tried to keep him from watching the TV because my mother didn’t want to get him upset. He had mentioned to her about looking for survivors. He couldn’t believe he was the only one in the water. And he talked about how he was going to fix his truck all up.
“And we knew the damage. So we weren’t going to allow him to watch the news.”
But they couldn’t keep him in the dark for long. “We didn’t get up early enough the next morning – by the time we got in, he was in tears. He says ‘Did you see the news? I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe I couldn’t help anybody.’ He was just beside himself.”
He had a strong survival instinct. On June 6, 1944, during the Allied Invasion at Normandy, MacIntire’s landing craft came under attack; he was the only one not killed. He remembered stepping over the bodies of his friends, crawling through the bloody wash, to get to safety.
Several times in his long-haul days, he’d been in collisions and thrown through the windshield of his truck. And in Gulfport, he fell off a roof he was fixing.
The family joke was that Wes MacIntire had a hard head. The Skyway thing? He made light of it. His hard head, he joked, had saved him again.
“If you knew my father’s personality, he always made light of everything – that he wasn’t hurt as bad, that everything was gonna be OK,” Yeomans explains. “He didn’t want us to feel like he wasn’t OK. He was the provider for my mom. He concentrated on not seeing her get upset.”
In fact, as time went on he only talked about it when friends, or the media, broached the subject. “But he wouldn’t give you the full impact of what he really felt.”
He and Betty were granted permission to board Summit Venture in drydock, and visit with the crew while they remained in Tampa for the joint Coast Guard/National Transportation Safety Board hearings. They delivered a homemade cake with “Thanks” written in both Mandarin and English.
He had Betty take photos of him in the ship’s wheelhouse, and in the Sick Bay room where the crew had first tended to his wounds.
Cracks in his facade began to appear almost immediately. “I had to come down here and get him to go into the pool with me, because he was so afraid just to get in that water,” Yeomans says. “That man was a good swimmer.
“Once he got in, he was OK, but he wasn’t the same person that he was at all. He didn’t like people feeling sorry for him or anything … he didn’t have any answers. He really didn’t know what direction to go in.”
MacIntire was suffering from Survivor Guilt, a form of Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nightmares, night sweats, irrational fears … he found himself unable to return to work. And he went out of his way to avoid driving over bridges.
“I think if he’d been able to talk to the families who lost loved ones, or made some connections, that would’ve helped him a lot,” his daughter believes. “Because he got his strength out of making sure everybody was OK.”
In July, he and Betty traveled to Toronto, Canada, where he appeared as a panelist on the syndicated game show To Tell the Truth:
I, Wesley MacIntire, am the sole survivor of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster. After being rammed by a freighter, the bridge fell into Florida’s Tampa Bay. As I approached it that day in blinding rain and hurricane –force winds, the bridge suddenly swayed. I saw steel beams twist and fall into the water. I couldn’t stop. I skidded off the edge and fell 140 feet down into the stormy seas. My falling truck bounced off the ship, which had struck the bridge, and sank. I managed to escape from the cab and was rescued by the crew. Ironically, my life was saved by the very vessel that caused the deaths of 35 other unfortunate people. Signed, Wesley MacIntire.
Only Kitty Carlisle and Nipsey Russell correctly identified him. MacIntire was all smiles, clearly thrilled to be there, joking with host Robin Ward and the panelists about the Skyway incident:
Ward: Wesley, I’ve heard that this was not your first close call. In fact, you’ve had several other brushes with death?
MacIntire: Yes, I’ve had three by ship, and four truck accidents, I fell off a roof once and got hurt, and the big one was off the Sunshine Skyway. Which makes it number nine, and I’m glad I’m not a cat.
Wes and Betty spent most of each summer visiting their daughter and grandson in Brimfield. Yeomans remembers: “My mother said to me, ‘Would you go out and talk to your father?’ And so I went outside. He was sitting on this stump. I said ‘Dad, what’s going on?’
“And he says ‘I’m a failure. I can’t provide for your mother.’ He mentally and physically couldn’t work. He didn’t know what was happening. He was having a breakdown but he didn’t know what was happening.
“And he started to cry. And I’d never seen my dad cry, ever. And I said ‘Dad, just cry. Just let it out.’”
In 1984, Hercules Carriers of Hong Kong, which owned Summit Venture and trained its crew, was ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Thomas to pay restitution to the State of Florida, local municipalities and the families and dependents of those who’d lost loved ones.
Because of the company’s unwritten policy against interfering with compulsory pilots, Thomas ruled, Summit Venture’s captain – who had testified that he was uncomfortable with Tampa harbor pilot John Lerro’s handling of the ship as the storm bore down – was negligent in not re-taking command.
The largest payout to a victim’s family was $1.5 million; Wesley MacIntire received $175,000. After legal expenses, medical expenses (including the psychiatric counseling he so desperately needed) and his lost wages, he ended up with $75,000.
That’s when he opened up about the emotional toll the tragedy had taken on him.
“Sure, I’m bitter,” MacIntire told the Tampa Tribune. “They said ‘You’re not hurt.’ If I were sitting here with a leg missing, well then you’d say this poor guy got hurt. When you’re mentally hurt, people can’t see that.”
In an interview with St. Pete’s Evening Independent, he laid it all out: “I was scared D-Day, but I didn’t realize it,” he said. “I remember great big guys crying. After all I went through in the service, the Skyway seems to be bothering me more than anything.
“For four years, I felt like I was to blame … I’d wake up at night and get mad. I’d swap it. I’d rather go through D-Day again than go over that stinking bridge.”
Although the Department of Transportation persuaded him to publicly “endorse” the replacement Sunshine Skyway when it opened in 1987, MacIntire’s daughter believes he was just playing along. “He really didn’t think the new bridge was going to be safe, or last long,” she says.
Wesley MacIntire never held another job. Before his death in 1989, his family knew better than to talk too much about the Skyway Bridge tragedy.
“We just went through the motions,” Yeoman says. “We never made a big deal out of it, because Dad didn’t. We just went through the motions and followed his lead, and whatever he wanted.
“For me, it was life-changing. And for him to go the way he did, from bone cancer, it was so sad. He survived so many things, and to see him die in agony and pain like he did was horrendous.”
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).