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Date of Issue: May 05, 2010

30 years ago: ‘Skyway bridge is down’

The wrecked Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Islander File Photo

“The Skyway bridge is down. This is a mayday. Emergency situation.”

The recording of the 30-year-old emergency call crackles.

“Stop the traffic on that Skyway bridge.”

You can here the original 30-year-old “mayday” call on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster here (opens in separate page)

The call to the U.S. Coast Guard at about 7:38 a.m. May 9, 1980, came from John E. Lerro, who was piloting the Summit Venture to the Port of Tampa when the 608-foot freighter struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Lerro, who had begun piloting freighters, tankers and passenger ships from the Gulf of Mexico into Tampa Bay in 1976 had navigated the channel — one of the longest shipping channels in the world — hundreds of times. But never before on a morning like that morning 30 years ago.

When the Summit Venture hit the bridge, eight autos and a Greyhound bus plummeted 150 feet to the water. Thirty-five people, most of them passengers on the bus, died. One person who fell into the water survived.

The archives of local newspapers contain the documentation of that morning.

Lerro was in the Summit Venture’s pilothouse working with pilot-in-training Bruce Atkins. The two had just taken control to guide the ship into port.

Winds quickly rose in the southwest — from calm to tropical force. Then came a driving rain — a blinding spring squall. Vision was cut short — the bow could not be seen from the pilothouse. The shipboard radar failed. And then Lerro saw part of the bridge directly ahead. It was moments before the collision, and too late to change course.

When the ship hit the bridge, more than 1,000 feet of the roadway fell.

“Get emergency … all the emergency equipment out to the Skyway bridge,” Lerro said in his distress call.

“The Skyway bridge is down.”

Crews spent weeks removing the twisted wreckage of the bridge while divers, in the days after the accident, searched for bodies.

Lerro died in August 2002 at the age of 59 after years of battling multiple sclerosis — he was diagnosed with the disease months after the Skyway accident.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on the 20th anniversary of the accident, the pilot said, “Life throws you a lot of things that aren’t bearable and you have to find a way to bear them.”

He also spoke about the bridge, and that he wished the old Skyway had had protective fenders like those on the replacement bridge.

The replacement, a cable-stayed concrete bridge completed in 1987 at a cost of $245 million, is still called the Sunshine Skyway, but its formal name is Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Fenders — large concrete islands called dolphins —exist around each of the bridge’s six piers to absorb the impact of an 87,000-ton tanker traveling at 10 knots.