From the record

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Driver Richard Hornbuckle of St. Petersburg stopped just shy of disaster that day. Islander File Photo: Gene Page III

At 7:34 a.m. May 9, 1980, the Liberian bulk carrier Summit Venture rammed a support pier of the western span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

About 1,297 feet of bridge deck and superstructure fell 150 feet into Tampa Bay, according to the investigation report released by the National Transportation Safety Board in March 1981. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be the Summit Venture’s unexpected encounter with severe weather, the failure of the National Weather Service to issue a severe weather warning for mariners and the failure of the Summit Venture pilot to abandon transit when he lost visual and radar navigational references in the rain.

Thirty-five people died, all of them drivers or passengers in vehicles on the bridge.

A Greyhound bus, small pickup truck and six automobiles fell into the bay.

The NTSB conducted a 10-day hearing where 28 people testified.

These are their words, according to the report.

“I started reviewing my options immediately … The rains came, but the wind has to be 30 to 10, 20, 30 seconds later. I don’t know how long,” the Summit Venture pilot-trainee said about the intense rain that obliterated the radar screen.

“Make the anchors ready for dropping,” the Summit Venture pilot said he told the ship’s master as he saw the rain fill the radar screen and tried, unsuccessfully, to sight a buoy using binoculars.

“Buoy starboard bow,” the pilot trainee said he reported when he could see buoys again.

“Where captain, where on the starboard bow? I have to know,” the pilot said he replied, and then he ordered the pilot-trainee to “change to the next course.”

“Lighter than usual,” two tollbooth operators testified, describing traffic on the bridge that morning.

“I could see the red airplane warning lights atop the bridge structure on the west side of the bridge. Suddenly those red lights fell from their original position to a point out of my view below the roadway ahead,” testified the motorist at the wheel of a slow-moving Chevy on the bridge who stopped safely.

“It seemed to wave and roll as it was falling,” the Chevy’s driver testified, adding that he backed up. “After I stopped, I remembered about three cars and then a bus passed traveling southbound.”

“The pickup started to bob up and down. … But then I, like, started to drop over a high part, and at this point, I looked and there I seen the ship. I was looking down at the ship. And I knew, you know, what had happened,” testified another driver. He was driving a pickup that went off the bridge. He was the only survivor of the bridge collapse.

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