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Date of Issue: May 12, 2005

Skyway disaster, 25 years later
skyway diaster
Islander Photos: Paul Roat
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Click here to hear the audio "mayday" recording for the Sunshine Skyway Bridge accident. Flie size: 1MB

Twenty-five years ago last Monday, the grim news of the "Skyway Disaster" unfolded just across Tampa Bay from Anna Maria Island: A freighter had struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, collapsing a quarter-mile section of the span. Eight cars and a bus hurtled through the opening and plummeted 150 feet into the bay.

It was one of the worst bridge disasters in the nation"s history. Thirty-five people lost their lives that morning.

The 'Summit Venture"

May 9, 1980, dawned but barely on Tampa Bay. A heavy fog dropped visibility to only a few yards, and a fast-moving squall was heading toward the mouth of the bay when Harbor Pilot Capt. John Lerro and Bruce Atkins, co-pilot trainee, boarded the "Summit Venture" in the Gulf of Mexico to guide the ship to the Port of Tampa.

The freighter was en route to Tampa to on-load 28,000 tons of phosphate, then on to the Orient. It was empty as it passed Egmont Key, its 608-foot-long hull riding high in the water.

Lerro and Atkins boarded the ship at 6:25 a.m. The ship"s master, Capt. Hsuing Chu Lui, relinquished control of the "Summit Venture" to Lerro, who let Atkins take the helm.

As the Sunshine Skyway drew near, the squall hit. Visibility dropped, and a trio of lookouts went to the bow to watch for the markers that guide ships through the 800-foot-wide opening of the bridge. Lerro took over from Atkins.

But as the "Summit Venture" neared a tricky turn in the channel, the storm hit with a vengeance. The empty ship skittered across the water under the force of the wind, estimated at 50 mph. A break in the rain provided one of the most horrible sights a ship captain could imagine - a bridge abutment loomed out of the darkness dead ahead, fully 800 feet from where it was expected to have been.

Lerro ordered the anchor dropped and the engines full astern. It was too little too late, and the 19,734-ton ship hit the southern bridge piling, crumpling the metal roadbed into the water, at 7:38 a.m.

Car after car after truck after bus drove off the edge of the bridge until one car, creeping through the storm, screeched to a halt only 14 inches from the yawning gap. Its four occupants scrambled for safety and began stopping other vehicles.

Of the eight passenger vehicles and one Greyhound bus that went over the edge, only one person survived the plunge and was pulled to safety aboard the "Summit Venture." On board the ship, the lone lookout who remained at the bow survived the bridge span"s collapse by ducking between two huge stanchions and crawled out from beneath the 90 feet of roadbed that came to rest only inches above his head.

The recovery

Recovery of the 35 bodies claimed by the bridge took almost a week. The twisted debris required explosives to break and cranes were needed to lift the vehicles to the surface. The force of the crash ripped the top of the bus along its length.

Divers recovered many bodies that day and transported them to Mullet Key"s Fort Desoto Park. Others washed ashore days later. Clearing the channel of debris so other ships could pass through the bridge took weeks.

The aftermath: Capt. John Lerro

Lerro was no stranger to problems in his career as a Tampa Bay harbor pilot. In his 42-month tenure he had had seven accidents. Less than three months earlier he was piloting a 720-foot freighter toward the bridge when the huge ship failed to respond quickly enough and its stern nudged the bridge, causing $40,000 of damage.

For all the mishaps, though, Lerro was never found to be at fault and no charges were ever brought against him - until the "Summit Venture" May 9.

Lerro"s harbor pilot license was revoked by a special panel, which said in part that his action "amounts to incompetence and neglect.

"Capt. Lerro took no action to halt the ship, change the course of the ship or drop anchors until the ship was in immediate peril of striking the bridge. Capt. Lerro had no idea where he was, no idea of how to get through the bridge and made no effort to stop. He took unnecessary risks and the bridge was struck."

Lerro appealed the license revocation, and was reinstated later in 1980 after the U.S. Coast Guard determined the accident was an act of God. He continued to pilot ships into Tampa Bay until a year later, when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He moved to New York and taught at his former alma mater, the Maritime Academy, then later moved back to Tampa and enrolled at the University of South Florida, where he eventually received a master"s degree in counseling and worked with paroled criminals.

Eventually, though, the disease caused him to stop work, he spent much of the end of his life bedridden or in a wheelchair, living on a pension and disability payments.

Lerro died Aug. 31, 2002. He was 59.

There were also charges against the harbor pilot association for lax training. And the Florida Department of Transportation was taken to task as well for not providing adequate protection around the bridge pilings that could have halted a ship before it struck the bridge itself. Also, the bridge opening was too narrow for modern ships to safely navigate, critics charged.

Even the channel leading to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge took some heat, as its odd dogleg eastbound was less than a mile from the span. The marker where the turn takes place is only seven boat lengths from the bridge, leaving scant time to make any last-minute course corrections.

Final aftermath

The $240 million Sunshine Skyway Bridge of today was finished in 1987. It does have a sturdy fender system around its pilings, a wider opening for ships to pass through, and with the new construction has a channel that is more user-friendly.

Much of the old Skyway was retained as fishing piers, and the central span"s debris used as artificial reefs near those piers.

Yet there are few who drive under the bright yellow girders supporting the graceful new Skyway who don"t peer anxiously left and right to see if another freighter is bearing down on the bridge, and reflect on that early morning 25 years ago.