Monday, May 10, 2010

Reflections on the Sunshine Skyway Tragedy 30 Years Ago

9 May.

In 1921 Sophie Scholl, the principal force behind the White Rose movement in Germany during World War II, was born.

In 1955 West Germany joins NATO.

In 1974, The United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee begins formal impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon in the Watergate Scandal.

In 1980:

Slovenia was not an independent nation yet – it was still a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, which was mourning the death of its longtime leader Josip Broz Tito earlier on 4 May 1980.

The Cuban boatlift was still going on, with refugees pouring in to the United States on boats coming out of Mariel Harbor.

Meanwhile, in the mouth of Tampa Bay, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge was a classic twin cantilever span ready for yet another day. Another day of motorists driving across the bridge (and having to dread the steel grid deck) to get where they want to go. Another day of ships coming into and out of the Port of Tampa. Besides, being a Friday it’s the end of another work and school week.

The time: 5:43 AM. The date: Friday, 9 May 1980. The place: The shipping channel between Egmont Key and Ft. DeSoto Park.

When ships come into or out of the Port of Tampa, they have to be guided in or out by a harbor pilot so that these ships can be safely navigated through Tampa Bay and into the Port of Tampa. Back then, there was a major obstacle: The old Sunshine Skyway Bridge with its 864-foot center span, which was long enough for ships of the 1950’s. Aboard a pilot boat out of Egmont Key, harbor pilot John Lerro reported to duty aboard a vessel that came inbound from Houston a few days earlier; that vessel is the Summit Venture, a 606-foot freighter coming in to Tampa to take on a load of phosphate for somewhere in a distant part of the world.

Everything seems OK, until a severe thunderstorm arrives sometime after 7 AM. Visibility was reduced to zero and that had John Lerro concerned. Would he miss the critical turn at Buoys 1A and 2A to avoid the Sunshine Skyway’s tall channel piers? After all, when you are on Interstate 275 and visibility drops to near zero, you take any and all measures to prevent a collision such as exiting the highway and waiting somewhere until the rain lets up.

Then, at 7:38 AM on Friday, 9 May 1980, Interstate 275 Florida history would change forever, as far as the Sunshine Skyway is concerned.

The rains kept raging on preventing any visibility whatsoever. Then – out of nowhere – the Summit Venture was on a collision course with the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and its Support Pier 2-S, the anchor pier just south of the main channel Pier 1-S that anchors the south cantilever and provides the transition from through truss to deck truss. John Lerro, the harbor pilot, tries everything to stop the ship from colliding with the bridge including reversing the engines and dropping the anchor.

Then impact.

Compare the impact to a soda can as it related to a compact car. The compact car has more mass than the soda can. Therefore, upon impact the soda can is crushed by the mass of the compact car. The same thing with the Summit Venture upon impact with Pier 2-S: After all, Pier 2-S was not designed for impact from a large vessel and, upon impact, Pier 2-S was sheared off its supports like a heavy sword.

Upon loss of support by Pier 2-S, the impact started a chain of events which would result in the deck truss from Pier 3-S northward plus the through truss from Pier 2-S to the point north of Pier 1-S (the main channel pier to the south of the shipping channel) collapsing into the churning waters of Tampa Bay below, including the south anchor arm and cantilever arm. This left behind the suspended center span which was being held up by the north cantilever arm and anchor arm but the northern arm could not take the load of the suspended center span on its own. The suspended center span fell into Tampa Bay as well.

In the end, thirty five people lost their lives that fateful morning including a few on a Greyhound bus headed for Miami. There were only two survivors: Richard Hornbuckle, who managed to stop his Buick Skylark a mere 14 inches from the abyss on the northern arm and Wesley McIntire, who drove off the broken end of the southbound span and survived by swimming to the top and being rescued by the Summit Venture crew.


I was going to a private high school on the day the Sunshine Skyway fell, and I was getting ready for school that morning. Back in 1980, we did not have Bay News 9 yet (in fact, my house did not have cable service yet – just an outdoor antenna receiving Channels 8, 10 or 13). Instead, I had a little AM radio tuned to WSUN-AM 620 listening to music while I was getting ready for school. Suddenly, Ronald J. Evin, the news director for WSUN at the time, came on with a special bulletin: A ship was ready to hit the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Well, I thought, it was probably another boat that would bump into the fender system and the Sunshine Skyway’s southbound span would still be there. Or as I thought.

Once at school the TV was on and tuned to WTVT Channel 13, which was a CBS affiliate at the time. (Remember the programming that used to be there from a long time ago when WTVT was a CBS affiliate? Things have changed substantially now, but that’s another story). Once I saw the pictures for the first time I was totally shocked: The southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway was gone. I could not believe it!

Two days later, when the northbound span was converted to handle two way traffic my mother, grandmother and I took a Sunday ride to check out the damage: A southbound span that was damaged beyond imagination, and a tall channel pier that stood out from the rest of the mail channel piers on the Sunshine Skyway – Pier 1-S – which would stand out as an icon of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge for the next several years. Everyone else was checking it out too.

Besides, my mother was doing the driving – I haven’t received my driver’s license yet. The car I had was a 1974 Ford Mustang II and all it had was just an AM radio – no AM/FM/CD like you see in today’s cars and SUV’s. Besides, WMNF 88.5 FM was on the air but did not have a Sunday afternoon polka show yet – it would be another year before the show premiered. The radio was fixed onto WSUN AM 620 just like my little radio at home.

30 years later, things have changed over the years since the Sunshine Skyway tragedy.

First of all, I graduated from high school in 1983 and I had to write a senior year thesis. The subject? The Sunshine Skyway Bridge, from building to collapse. My knowledge and research of the subject earned me an A+. After high school came college a few months later.

In 1981, there were decisions that had to be made as far as the Sunshine Skyway is concerned. Rebuild the cantilever bridge or replace it with a new bridge? Florida Governor Bob Graham made the decision that would change the signature of Tampa Bay forever: A new, cable-stayed four lane Sunshine Skyway Bridge that met interstate highway standards. After all, Interstate 275 was built all the way to Queensboro Av S in south St. Petersburg with another section getting underway which would extend the highway to 39 Av S with interchanges at 22 Av S (Exit 19) and 26 Av S (Exit 18) and the ultimate goal was to connect Interstate 275 with the newly extended Interstate 75 to Naples and Miami. Besides, the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge did not meet interstate standards.

Construction on the new Sunshine Skyway began in 1982, and I was yet on another trip to Europe, this time to Belgium and Holland as part of a European study tour given by my high school.

On 30 April 1987, the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened to traffic. A week later, I would graduate from St. Petersburg College with my Associate in Science degree, receiving my diploma at what used to be the Bayfront Center in downtown St. Petersburg. A few months later I would start working for the City of St. Petersburg.

Just a few weeks after the tenth anniversary of the Sunshine Skyway tragedy, I experienced a personal tragedy of my own: I lost my grandmother to an accident involving a drunk driver on the morning of Friday, 25 May 1990. Things have changed for me drastically – it was just my mother and I together in the same home.

A year later, in 1991 Jodie Foster – who would go on to win a second Academy Award for best actress in Silence of the Lambs – begins her directorial debut in Little Man Tate, which was my most favorite Jodie Foster movie of all time. At the same time, the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge was demolished, leaving behind segments which would be converted into fishing piers later.

In 1994, the hit television series ER premieres. That same year, I began work on my second Associate in Science degree at Hillsborough Community College, this time in Legal Assisting. While my education was in full swing with a full time job underway, another of my favorite actresses comes on the ER scene, and that was the introduction of the head of the emergency department of Cook County General, played by Laura Innes.

For the next several years, ER would be riding high on the viewer ratings. Then in 1998 the Tampa Bay Rays (which used to be known as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays) began their first season of baseball at Tropicana Field. For me, I graduated from Hillsborough Community College with what I wanted: A second Associate in Science degree in Legal Assisting.

Two years later, in March 2000 I experienced another personal tragedy with the loss of my mother to a heart attack. In the midst of what was going on, I was taking an Internet class at Hillsborough Community College which I had to later drop due to my mother’s condition, and the birth of a website on the Internet:, which had pictures of Interstate 275 St. Petersburg pictures that I took with a traditional 35 mm camera and scanned them using a scanner. Three years later, in 2003 the pictures of Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg including the Sunshine Skyway Bridge would be moved into its new home: Since then I have expanded the content on to include all 59 miles of Interstate 275 in the Tampa Bay area, including the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the Howard Frankland Bridge, and the two feeders into downtown St. Petersburg, Interstates 375 and 175.

As I write this blog entry, I paid a visit on Sunday, 9 May 2010 to the fishing pier on the northern end of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The center section including its signature main channel piers is long gone, but as I was standing at the end of the fishing pier I began to realize the bridge that used to be from its beginnings in 1954 as a single span and the second span in 1971 to the collapse in 1980 and what happened afterward. I took a look around the fishing pier and bait shop and all I found was nothing more than a little poster put up by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection – the department responsible for Florida’s state parks and recreation areas including the Sunshine Skyway fishing piers – that told of the tragedy that took place on 9 May 1980.

Here’s a comment I left over at the St. Petersburg Times website discussing where people were when the Sunshine Skyway collapsed:

I have heard that there is some kind of memorial being put up at the fishing pier to remember the people whose lives were cut short by what happened. Perhaps a memorial - maybe a small obelisk structure consisting of a replica of the two tall channel piers (on the southbound span, the north channel pier - Pier 1N - had the identical look to their 1954 counterparts while the south channel pier - Pier 1S - had a different architectural look after repairs were made in 1969) - should be constructed as a memorial to the old Sunshine Skyway as well as the 35 people that perished that frightful morning. Besides, we remember people that we lost with monuments and memorials, especially World War II.

There’s already a memorial to the US Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn, which sunk just west of the old Sunshine Skyway in January 1980 after colliding with an oil tanker. I think the State of Florida ought to consider a memorial at the fishing pier of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge, built with private donations, as a reminder of the tragedy that happened that fateful morning of Friday, 9 May 1980 and afterward as well as triumph with the construction of the new bridge.

Now I want you to share your memories of what happened 30 years ago on 9 May 1980 when the Sunshine Skyway collapsed. To do so, simply reply to this blog entry and it will be up after I moderate it, of course.