The story of Captain John Lerro is steeped in pathos. The harbor pilot will forever be bound to the tragedy that sent 35 people, including an infant, plummeting to their deaths from the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Lerro was guiding the Summit Venture during a sudden storm when the freighter struck a supporting structure of the bridge and caused a section of the western span to collapse.
For some, Lerro was the thirty-sixth victim of the May 9, 1980, disaster. Not everyone will agree, of course, but audiences have a chance to make up their minds this weekend, when journalist, author and playwright Bill DeYoung gives Lerro a voice in the one-man play, Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge.
Whether we were around or not, many of us believe we know the facts of that early morning 41 years ago. Coverage of the lives lost was extensive. Six cars and a truck plunged into the waters below. So did a Greyhound bus. It carried 26 passengers, among them college students heading home in time for Mother’s Day and a young wife traveling with her baby to a surprise birthday party being held for the child’s grandmother.
Then there was the harbor pilot who should have prevented it all – John Lerro.
The author of Mayday was 21 and working in a record store at the old Pinellas Square Mall when the tragedy shocked Tampa Bay residents and people far beyond.
“I remember the day. I remember what it felt like. I remember that black sky,” DeYoung recalled this week. “I went to work in the mall and everybody was talking about it.”
The incident took a tenacious hold on DeYoung in the years that followed, forging an urge to give an accurate account of that dreadful day. Delving in, he scoured court documents and crisscrossed the state to meet with family and friends of those who perished that foggy, stormy morning. He spoke to officials. He listened to, and read, Lerro’s own words and spoke with those who knew the harbor pilot. His research resulted in the 2013 book Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down.
“Before I wrote the book, I was having a series of dreams about the Skyway Bridge. I honestly believed that’s where the seed was planted. It was a recurring dream, this scary crossing into nowhere,” DeYoung said. “I started reading everything I could about it. I felt that the story needed to be in one place.”
He drew on the book for the new play.
“From the beginning, the Lerro story struck me as so sad and so tragic. It stayed with me. In a way, he became a great, lost figure in this story. The focus has rightfully been on the victims, but he had a really tough time. I believed it was a story worth telling,” said DeYoung, senior writer and editor for the St. Pete Catalyst.
“I really did feel that he never recovered from this experience. The center of what this story is, even though he was exonerated, he felt, until the day he died, he felt a very intense guilt.
Mayday was supposed to premier last year, 40 years after the tragedy, but the coronavirus pandemic forced a change. A 15-minute preview was shown online, instead.
Actor Michael Horn is looking forward to playing the guilt-ridden Lerro in front of a live audience this weekend. Mayday, which is opening at thestudio@620 today, is being directed by actor and playwright Roxanne Fay.
For Horn, a St. Petersburg native, the role seems a perfect fit. DeYoung discovered Horn’s aptitude for memorizing lengthy monologues during his performance as British scientist Alan Turing in Gulfport Community Players’ Breaking the Code.
“He is really good at inhabiting a character – and he has the most insane memorialization skills,” DeYoung said.
For his part, Horn said a couple of factors captivated him about the role. “Probably the biggest one is I judge myself very harshly sometimes. I often seek perfectionism,” he said. “So sometimes I get kind of locked into my head about whether I’m doing the right thing or the wrong thing. What people are thinking about me or what other people are saying about me. These are things I can very much relate to what John Lerro experienced.”
The software developer added that in his experience as a developer and as an actor, there are times when he takes responsibility for something that is partially out of his control. That’s “one of the big conflicts for John Lerro over and over,” he said. “He took responsibility for things that were outside of his control.”
Much of the dialogue in the script is based on court transcripts and what Lerro said in media interviews and shared with family and close friends. “I feel pretty good that this is a pretty accurate representation of who he was, how he felt about things,” DeYoung said. “The fact that it is real, I think lends it that much more of a wallop. I want people to understand John’s story.”
Lerro’s Catholic faith and intense sense of guilt and need for absolution are threaded throughout the play. In his search for answers, and perhaps solace, Lerro studied Buddhism. At times, DeYoung said, the harbor pilot wondered whether he was talking to the wrong God. Still, he remained Catholic.
“I think he was ready to be a scapegoat, not because he loved being a scapegoat, but because he felt he was supposed to confess when he felt guilty,” Horn observed. “So, when the Summit Venture hit the bridge through no fault of his own, it was almost a perfect storm in so many senses of the word, because he was a personal scapegoat for them to pin this on.”
The National Weather Service, the play’s author reminds us, had not issued a severe weather warning the morning the Summit Venture hit the Skyway. “It came up so fast. Then they issued it, but it was after the bridge had fallen,” DeYoung said.
“It was a confluence of one bad thing after another. It all happened all together and kind of ambushed him right at this moment when he couldn’t stop that ship. He just did the best with what he was handed. He felt guilty for the rest of his life.”
There was talk – actually to this day – that Lerro had been drunk. He was, in fact, a teetotaler. State officials cleared him of wrongdoing. His license, which had been suspended, was reinstated. It was determined that the sudden bad weather, “an act of God,” had hampered his navigation.
Less than a year after the tragedy, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Lerro died in 2002. He was 59.
“John went through hell,” DeYoung said. “There’s a line in the play, where he says, ‘It was all over in two minutes and those two minutes are all that mattered.’ That’s true. Those two minutes not only changed his life, it turned it completely upside down. I like to call this whole thing a confluence of bad mojo. He was just kind of a hapless guy caught in the middle of everything that happened at this exact two-minute stretch, on May 9, 1980.”
Horn believes there’s a lesson in Lerro’s story.
“It’s a beautiful story, but kind of the moral that’s almost unspoken is that in sensationalism, there are heroes and there are villains and it’s very black and white. You get a story that paints people as a certain archetype,” he said. “In reality, everyone is a grey area, everyone is very human and that’s certainly true of John Lerro.”
The actor hopes those who see Mayday will understand that “everything you see is not black and white,” but “all shades of humanity.”
For those who experienced that fateful day, even peripherally, the memories are vivid, perhaps, even eerie. “The walls of rain,” DeYoung recalls. “It was a very intense storm and then it was gone, just like it never happened.”
But it did for the 35 people who perished and their families and friends left to mourn. And for Capt. John Lerro, who lived with the guilt for the remainder of his life. Maybe redemption for his memory comes with Mayday.
Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge is performed at 8 p.m. Friday, June 25, and 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday, June 26. Tickets are $20 here.