It’s 38 years since fateful day the Sunshine Skyway went down

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By Gene Page III

Special to The Islander

I remember waking up May 9, 1980, to the noise of strong wind from the west beating the rain, horizontally, onto our windows where we lived on 77th Street in Holmes Beach.

Probably 10 minutes afterward, I got the phone call from my Coast Guard friend. The Skyway Bridge had been struck by a ship and one span was in the water.

A May Day call immediately went out.

I then called Charlie Gerdes, who lived two blocks west of me and told him I had to get to the scene.

No problem for Charlie, who had previously spent 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard before moving to Holmes Beach and getting into the marina business. Meeting me at the marina, he already had one of his two Blackfin 28-footers ready to go.

The huge, deep-V boat had twin 488-cubic-inch engines and a beam of 12 feet, the latter telling you how stable it would be in heavy weather — which it was. Thank goodness!

We quickly got going and about the time we made the Intracoastal Waterway I got a call on my walkie-talkie from Sarasota Herald-Tribune managing editor Ed Pierce screaming about hearing something about the bridge being hit by some boat, and did I know anything about it? After he knew what I knew and the fact I was en route to the scene by boat, he really started screaming! Of course, you’d have to have known Pierce to fully appreciate him and his ways.

Passing four Coast Guard boats from Cortez and bouncing around a bit, it still only took about 30 minutes for us to get there. With the Summit Venture still in the process of backing off slowly from both the bridge and the debris to a safe distance, Eckerd College had two rescue boats on scene with divers already in the water.

There were some floaters but, of course, most folk, especially those in the bus, were still down.

I shot what I could, trying not to miss anything as the weather began to calm and the first Coast Guard boats from St. Petersburg began to appear. They paid us no attention for about the first 20 minutes or so — until they realized all we were doing was shooting pix.

Then, as the Cortez boats arrived, they backed us out and established a 600-foot perimeter. I switched to a longer lens and kept shooting, mostly of folk being dragged aboard the Coast Guard boats. Ed Pierce called back and wanted to know where I thought staff photographer Phil Skinner should go. I suggested Bayboro because that’s where the Coast Guard was already ferrying bodies. Also, I had Skinner meet us near the shore on the south side so I could throw him several rolls of film I had finished. He would then pass that film to a “runner,” who also came up in a separate car.

We stayed on the scene about two hours and then went to Bayboro to take the place of Skinner, who was now shooting from the bridge.

What impressed me most of all through the entire ordeal was the eerie quietness about the scene once the weather calmed down. Everyone there just went about doing their respective jobs with little or no radio traffic or talk between boats. Actually, the very same solitude prevailed days later when we were all back out there for the raising of the bus, various cars and additional bodies that had been trapped inside the bus.

I left Charlie’s boat and went ashore to return to the Bradenton office of the Herald-Tribune about noon and then on down to Sarasota to talk to a reporter for a sidebar story on my trip to the scene.

Much later in the day I went out on the northbound span with Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Mike Rushing so he could stop his car long enough for me to take the shot I sent The Islander showing the remains of the southbound span silhouetted against the late day sun.

That shot later became the cover for our book.


Editor’s note: Paul Roat, then employed by the former Islander newspaper under publisher Don Moore, raced to the scene from Anna Maria with all the film he could gather from the newspaper’s Pine Avenue office. Yours truly worked the phones, notifying other newspaper staff of the disaster and waited, ready to run more film to the scene. Roat shot from the bridge. Page shot the scene from a boat. Page’s account first published in The Islander on the 25-year anniversary in 2005. — Bonner Joy