‘The devil and the deep blue sea’
The bright, yellow suspension cables glint in the sun.
On a clear day, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge can be seen from Anna Maria Island.
Islanders also can see Egmont Key, off the northeast tip of Bean Point. Egmont is where Capt. John Lerro was sleeping in a beach cabin at the pilot station early May 8, 1980 — before his name would be tied to disaster.
Richard Hornbuckle was on a morning drive to Bradenton May 9, 1980, with three others for a golf game. In a rainstorm, he turned on his emergency flashers and moved to the right lane on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay between Pinellas and Manatee counties.
Hornbuckle was driving slowly when the road ahead of him dropped out of sight. He slammed his foot on the brake pedal, and his Buick slid to a halt 14 inches from the edge of the vanished roadway.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster was in motion — right before his eyes.
The men exited the car and walked back from the abyss, trying to comprehend what happened.
Hornbuckle, who died in 2000, and his passengers were some of the luckier ones that morning.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster remains one of Tampa Bay’s darkest events. Thirty-five people, including 26 passengers on a Greyhound bus bound for Miami and nine people in passenger cars, died.
The 609-foot long Summit Venture, piloted by 37-year-old Capt. John Eugene Lerro, had rammed the southbound span of the Skyway at 7:34 a.m.
The ship, eastbound to the Port of Tampa, was 800 feet to the right center of the Tampa Bay shipping channel. Lerro had lost sight of the bridge in a squall that came in off the Gulf of Mexico. He and he was struggling to keep control of the 35,000-ton ship in the wind and the rain.
He could not see the bow.
He could not see the bridge less than a mile away.
He ordered the ship to turn hard left and ordered the anchor dropped. But it was too late.
When the rain cleared moments before impact, he was unable to stop or steer the vessel clear of the span.
After the impact, the bridge shuddered and the cantilever construction flexed, taking down a quarter-mile of the southbound roadway, which fell from the main supporting pier to the other side of the span.
The first mayday call went out at 7:34 a.m. from the Summit Venture, according to skyway.com.
“Mayday! Coast Guard! Mayday! Bridge crossing is down!” Lerro yelled into the radio mic.
He and his crew watched as vehicles plunged into the bay. Some 1,297 feet of roadway fell into the water.
Wesley MacIntire, 56, a Gulfport truck driver, was in his 1974 Ford pickup when he realized the road was falling beneath him.
The World War II Navy veteran survived the fall — his truck fell with the roadway and crashed on the bow of the ship. The truck then bounced into the water. He fought his way out of the sinking truck and surfaced beside the Summit Venture and later said he feared being killed by the drifting ship at that point. The bow was covered with steel girders and twisted rebar.
A Summit Venture crewmember spotted MacIntire and hoisted him up on the deck.
MacIntire was the only survivor of the plunge off the Sunshine Skyway.
St. Petersburg firefighter Gerard Chalmers was among the first divers at the bridge collapse. He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune he developed “bridge phobia” after the disaster.
Hornbuckle continued to travel between Pinellas and Manatee counties but always took a long way around, through Tampa, after the disaster.
A friend, Michael Gattus, said Hornbuckle became deathly ill the one time he tried to cross the Skyway again.
Wrong place, wrong time
The disaster was a perfect storm of Mother Nature coupled with human error.
The bridge spanned 15 miles linking Pinellas and Manatee.
The first span Skyway Bridge opened in 1954 with two lanes of traffic, replacing the Bee Line ferry between the counties.
In 1971, a twin parallel span was opened, carrying southbound traffic. The original span then carried the northbound traffic.
After the 1980 disaster, a new taller, cable-stayed bridge was constructed. It opened in 1987, with a clearance of 175 feet and a channel 1,200 feet wide — 400 feet wider than the channel at the time of the disaster.
Lerro was young and well respected in his profession when he piloted the ship into the bridge. He had piloted ships around the globe and was scheduled two days after the incident to receive a promotion to full-fledged harbor pilot.
The phosphate ship was empty — headed into the Port of Tampa to take on a load — when Lerro was engulfed by the squall that reduced visibility to zero.
Later, he testified in a hearing about the incident. He said he feared wind might push the Summit Venture into an oncoming ship if he tried to anchor. So, he chose to keep moving in the storm, not realizing the ship had moved out of the channel and away from under the high center of the bridge. It was too late when he ordered the turn and the anchor dropped.
After the disaster, Lerro’s pilot license was suspended — though it was later reinstated — and he was the subject of state and federal hearings.
In 1981, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He taught school in New York state for a semester in 1985, and then returned to Tampa Bay. He was divorced, suffered bouts of depression until he died in 2002 at 59.
“It was the storm and the wrong decision,” Lerro told a Los Angeles Times reporter after the incident. “The radar was out, the visuals were out. I ought to have put the ship aground. I was between the devil and the deep blue sea. That’s what I have to live with now.”
The Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge that drivers traverse now is very different from the Skyway bridge the Summit Venture struck in 1980.
It has cables attached to towers to support the deck. The bridge is 4.14 miles long and the longest span in the construction is 1,200 feet. It has four lanes of traffic — two northbound and two southbound — and has a total height of 430 feet. Clearance for ships is 180.5 feet at mean-high tide.
The bridge opened April 20, 1987, and cost $244 million. During construction, the northbound lanes of the old Skyway — which were not damaged by the Summit Venture — were converted to carry traffic in both directions until the current bridge was finished.
The old bridge approaches were kept intact and make up the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park.
Wes MacIntire was the last person to drive over it the old remaining northbound lanes of the original bridge before it was demolished. Accompanied by his wife, they dropped 35 white carnations into the water at the top of the span, one flower for each person who died in May 1980.
The Islander, looking back on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster, used the following resources for this report: The Islander archives, skywaybridge.com, WGCU Southwest Florida, Wikipedia, the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times.