Saturday, May 9, 2015

Reflections on the Sunshine Skyway Tragedy 35 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 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?  WTVT became a FOX affiliate in the Great Tampa Bay Television Affiliate Switch of 1994 and WTVT has been a FOX Owned and Operated station since.)  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.  In fact, no entertainment center where you can listen to AM, FM, XM Satellite Radio or your own MP3 music on a flash drive.  The radio was fixed onto WSUN AM 620 just like my little radio at home.

35 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.

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 the Tampa Bay region 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.  On 30 April 1987, five years after construction started, the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened to traffic.    

Right after the new Sunshine Skyway opened both the old and new Sunshine Skyway bridges would stand next to each other.  In 1991 the old Sunshine Skyway – both northbound and southbound spans including all the main channel piers including Pier 1-S, the channel pier that stood out after the Sunshine Skyway tragedy – was demolished.  What was left of the northbound and southbound spans were converted into fishing piers as they are today.

When I wrote a similar blog entry five years ago in 2010 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.

Well, fast forward five years to 2015.  Saturday, 9 May 2015 to be exact.  A memorial to the Sunshine Skyway tragedy would become reality thanks to a private individual.

Bill DeYoung wrote an excellent book of the true story of the Tampa Bay region’s signature bridge and of the events that led up to the tragedy at the Sunshine Skyway’s southbound span on 9 May 1980.  Bill’s book expertly documents the Sunshine Skyway from when it was built in 1954 and the twin southbound span in 1971 until tragedy struck that fateful Friday morning in May 1980.

At the same time the book was being promoted, there was strong interest for a memorial dedicated to the 35 people that lost their lives on 9 May 1980.  A donation drive ensued, and with the blessing of the State of Florida to allow a monument to be constructed at the North Skyway Rest Area a memorial dedicated to the memory of the 35 people that lost their lives on the Sunshine Skyway that fateful morning became reality.

That memorial was dedicated at a public ceremony on Saturday, 9 May 2015.  I paid a visit to the newly erected memorial later in the afternoon and I would say that it is a very beautiful and respectful memorial.

Now there are two memorials in the North Skyway Rest Area:  One is the memorial to the USCGC Blackthorn which sank in Tampa Bay when it collided with the tanker Capricorn on 28 January 1980, and the other memorial of course is the memorial to the thirty five persons that lost their lives when the Sunshine Skyway was hit by the Summit Venture on Friday, 9 May 1980 at 7:38 AM.  Both memorials are part of the North Skyway Rest Area and are open 24 hours a day; simply take the exit for the North Skyway Rest Area from Interstate 275 and follow the signs for the rest area.  Once in the rest area both memorials are on the left; the Skyway memorial is the first memorial just before you approach the rest area building and the Blackthorn memorial is the second memorial across the drive from the rest area building.  There is ample parking provided in the rest area and nighttime security is provided for peace of mind.

I highly recommend Bill DeYoung’s book, and you can purchase it from Amazon in either traditional hard copy format or in electronic Amazon Kindle format which you can read on practically any device such as your desktop or laptop computer, iPhone, iPad, Android – you name it.  This book is the Sunshine Skyway tragedy well researched and done.

With two memorials in the North Skyway Rest Area, perhaps the Florida DOT should update the signage on the Interstate 275 mainline just before the exit for the North Skyway Rest Area.  Presently the signage is just for the Blackthorn memorial.

In respect to the thirty five people who perished that fateful morning on Friday, 9 May 1980, here is a closeup picture of the newly dedicated monument with the names of the thirty five people who perished that day - The Day The Skyway Fell (click on the photo to enlarge):