Thursday, August 2, 2007

Reflections on the Minneapolis bridge tragedy in relation to the Sunshine Skyway

We experienced another tragedy with the collapse of the bridge that carries Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis on 1 August 2007. From seeing the video of the collapse as it happened it is believed that there are injuries and deaths as a result of the bridge collapse. But before I go on further, please let me say that my thoughts go out to the families affected by this bridge collapse.

It brings back memories of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster that happened on 9 May 1980. For most of us living in the Tampa Bay area around that time we definitely remember what happened. The freighter Summit Venture collided with the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in a blinding rainstorm at 7:38 AM, first striking a major channel pier and then striking the pier immediately south of the major channel pier. This pier - which held up the south cantilever - upon impact by the ship and the pier being sheared off at the base began a series of events that led to 1,260 feet of concrete and steel dropped 150 feet into Tampa Bay taking with it 35 lives including several on a Greyhound bus headed for Miami. Only two people survived this terrible tribulation: Richard Hornbuckle who managed to stop his Buick only 14 inches from going over the edge and Wesley McIntire who went off the bridge but managed to survive by escaping from his pickup truck and swimming upwards to the surface where he was rescued by the crew of the Summit Venture.

I remember that morning when I was getting ready for school and it was raining. Then I heard on the radio that a ship was on a collision course with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Later on when I saw the pictures on TV at school I was shocked to see a Sunshine Skyway Bridge missing a tooth: 1,260 feet of bridge from just south of the north main channel pier to the pier south of the pier that was destroyed by the ship. The images of these channel piers plus the wreckage on the bow of the Summit Venture would be indeed ingrained in our memories for the forseeable future. For the next seven years the monument to disaster on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge would be that main channel pier on the south side of the shipping channel that held up the southbound span (that's the channel pier that looked different than the other three main channel piers as a result of repairs done in 1969, two years before the southbound span opened in 1971). That monument to disaster was torn down in 1991 when the old Sunshine Skyway was demolished.

Back when the Sunshine Skyway fell in 1980 Interstate 275 was not part of the Sunshine Skyway yet - that would come seven years later when the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened and Interstate 275 was completed through St. Petersburg. The rest of the Sunshine Skyway's minor bridges and highway were brought up to interstate standards including the drawbridges that were torn down and reconstructed as high level fixed span bridges in the early 1990's. After all, none of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge spans (1954 and 1971) were built to interstate standards. Right after the tragedy there was talk of not including the Sunshine Skyway with Interstate 275; however, the construction of Interstate 275 was a crucial asset to the Tampa Bay area and, as such, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as we know it today is that crucial link to Interstate 275.

As for the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, it carries Interstate 35W as it crosses the Mississippi River and through metropolitan Minneapolis. A companion interstate highway, Interstate 35E, carries traffic through St. Paul, which is Minnesota's state capital. Interstate 35 is unique in that it has two route designations as it passes through two metropolises, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Dallas/Ft. Worth.

Back when the Interstate Highway System was planned these letter suffixes were allowed but the United States DOT's Federal Highway Administration, acting on the advice of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO), did away with the suffixes and no longer allowed their use. However, the Interstate 35W and 35E designations were allowed to be grandfathered. Here in the Tampa Bay area when Interstate 75 was being constructed it was planned for Interstate 75 to go through the metropolitan areas of Tampa and St. Petersburg and the bypass route was planned to be Interstate 75E. The routes were constructed but the numbering didn't happen as planned as letter suffixes were no longer allowed when the bypass route was being planned. Today Interstate 75 runs on the newly constructed bypass route that takes it east of Tampa and the original Interstate 75 that goes into Tampa and St. Petersburg is today's Interstate 275.

Please feel free to browse the Interstate 275 Florida site and be sure to check out the Sunshine Skyway Bridge page. Your comments and reflections, especially about the recent bridge collapse tragedy in Minneapolis, are always welcome.

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