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Florida History: The Sunshine Skyway Bridge Tragedy

Eliot Kleinberg
Walton Sun

Readers: It was in a blinding rain storm 40 years ago that part of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, perhaps one of Florida's most photogenic features, came crashing down. And, most horrifically, moments later, unknowing motorists drove right off the edge.

On May 9, 1980, the phosphate freighter Summit Venture slammed into a main pillar of the Skyway's southbound span. In seconds, more than 1,400 feet of span -- a quarter mile -- tumbled some 150 feet into the roiling waters where Tampa Bay opens into the Gulf of Mexico.

RELATED: Photos: Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster anniversary [Photo gallery]

Soon after, so did seven vehicles. And a Greyhound bus with a driver and 25 passengers. In all, 35 people died.

When the 4-mile bridge opened in 1954, it cut the commute for people who had to take a ferry or travel a circuitous route along the east bay in half.

The two-lane concrete bridge, with its steel truss system at the center, grew so popular that a second two-lane span opened in 1971. More than once, ships wrestling the bay's treacherous currents would bang into each other. Or the bridge. But no incident was fatal.

On May 9, local harbor pilot John E. Lerro guided the empty freighter Summit Venture into the bay. He had hundreds of successful runs to his credit. But radar was out and visibility was near zero. When Lerro encountered an unexpected squall, he saw what appeared to be a course buoy and pushed the 609-foot-long freighter forward. Minutes later, he felt impact.

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday," Lerro said into the radio. "All emergency equipment onto the Skyway bridge. A vessel just hit the Skyway Bridge. The Skyway Bridge is down."

Lerro stayed calm until he saw vehicles tumbling down. Then he screamed, "Stop the traffic on that Skyway bridge!"

An appreciation: Prominent Miami-area historian and preservationist Arva Moore Parks died May 10. She was a cherished mentor to this writer.

One motorist survived. Wesley MacIntire’s Ford Courier pickup skid off the edge, bounced off the side of the freighter and began to sink. Wesley came to and saw bubbles in his headlights. He opened his window, got two gulps of salt water and surfaced.

Investigators concluded the disaster was the result of unexpected severe weather, failure of the National Weather Service to issue a severe weather warning and failure of the pilot to abandon the trip after the radar and visibility dropped.

It took Lerro nearly a year to recover his pilot's license, but by then he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and retired.

READER REWIND: Everyone has their own piece of Florida history. Share yours with us by leaving a voicemail at (850) 270-8418.

A new $244 million bridge opened April 30, 1987. Sea lanes under it were widened from 800 feet to 1,200 feet. And around the pillars were placed 36 anchored bumpers, or "dolphins," designed to withstand the impact of a vessel twice the tonnage of the Summit Venture.

In a great twist of fate, the day the Skyway went down, news crews from South Florida were also on the scene immediately. That's because they already were in Tampa Bay. A sensational trial had been moved there. Its verdict led to one of Miami's darkest days. That's next week.

Last week: Hypocrite’s Row: In Florida, Prohibition was more or less a suggestion

Next week: The summer Miami boiled

From a reader: Eliot, did not receive the “accent” section of the Sunday paper until a friend loaned me his tonight. I am astounded and shocked that you would in any way refer to Nixon as “the first environmental president.” His record on that front pales in comparison to T. Roosevelt. Otherwise enjoyed and [was] educated by your article. Sincerely, Reeve

Eliot responds: Hi Reeve. As a scholar of Teddy and his visionary acts to save much of America's natural beauty, I hang my head in shame. That was a pretty big goof.

Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.