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Plaintiff pleas for continuance fail, BB Sunshine trial begins

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Defendants, left, and plaintiffs, right, are seated July 15 for a civil trial in a lawsuit filed in August 2017 by Bradenton Beach ex-Mayor Jack Clarke and the city, alleging Sunshine Law violations by former board members John Metz, Reed Mapes, Patty Shay, Bill Vincent, Tjet Martin and Rose Vincent. Islander Photos: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes
Defendants, left, and plaintiffs, right, are seated July 15 for a civil trial in a lawsuit filed in August 2017 by Bradenton Beach ex-Mayor Jack Clarke and the city, alleging Sunshine Law violations by former board members John Metz, Reed Mapes, Patty Shay, Bill Vincent, Tjet Martin and Rose Vincent. Islander Photos: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes

Bradenton Beach was rejected on its request for more “sunshine.”

The trial began the morning of July 15.

An emergency hearing and deposition took place July 11, days before the nonjury trial began for Bradenton Beach and ex-Mayor Jack Clarke versus six former board members who they allege violated Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

A judge denied the city’s motion to file a second amended complaint and continue the trial date, made by Robert Watrous, attorney for the city and Clarke, in an emergency pretrial hearing.

However, the judge allowed the plaintiffs time to again depose defendant John Metz July 12.

The hearing

The lawsuit, filed in August 2017 by Clarke and joined by the city, alleges Sunshine Law violations by former P&Z board members Metz, Reed Mapes, Patty Shay, and Bill Vincent, and Scenic Waves Partnership Committee members Tjet Martin and Rose Vincent, all of whom were members of the now-defunct grass-roots group Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach.

Clarke and the city allege the six defendants violated Sunshine Law by discussing city matters at CNOBB meetings and through emails, texts and phone calls.

Clarke was absolved by the city of paying any legal fees for the case.

As of July 12, the defendants and 10 witnesses had been deposed in the civil suit.

A motion to amend the initial complaint to include further evidence obtained July 3 by the city and for a 45-day continuance before beginning the trial was denied by 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Edward Nicholas.

During the July 11 hearing for the plaintiffs’ motion, Watrous argued that he and paralegal Michael Barfield had heard and read references to a July 14, 2017, CNOBB steering committee meeting during discovery, but had not been provided with a recording of the meeting.

Watrous said attorney Jim Dye, who was representing Mapes, Martin, Shay and the Vincents before they went pro se earlier this year, said July 11 he’d mailed Watrous and Metz’s attorney Thomas Shults CDs Dec. 22, 2018, with recordings of the July 14, 2017, meeting. Watrous claimed July 11 he did not receive the recording until July 3 — the day after Metz’s deposition — when Shults provided it as part of the exhibits for trial.

According to Watrous, upon listening to the July 14, 2017, meeting, he heard Mapes discussing a pending matter before the P&Z Board regarding the Bridge Tender Inn and Dockside Bar in Bradenton Beach.

Shults argued against the motions.

Shults said Watrous was sent the materials from Dye at the same time he received the CD. So Watrous also should have received the recording.

Additionally, he said Watrous likely would have continued to contact him to obtain the recording had he not received it.

Watrous argued that if he’d had the recording, he would not have had to twice ask for it from Shults, who Watrous said replied, “None,” in an email, both times he inquired.

“If I’d had this tape, it would’ve been a huge, additional lynchpin of my case,” Watrous said. “On my proposed amended complaint, in bold letters, I would’ve been saying, ‘Based upon the July 14 meeting, Mr. Mapes violated the Sunshine Law and made reference to the Bridge Tender Inn, when that had been at the prior P&Z hearing.’ I would’ve had a smoking gun.”

Nicholas denied the motion for a continuance and the motion to amend, but allowed the plaintiffs to again depose Metz the next day.

He said the scope of the deposition must be “limited to the tape and the meeting surrounding July 14, 2017.”

Another Metz deposition

Three days before trial, Metz again was deposed, this time by city attorney Ricinda Perry.

At the onset, there was a dispute about the scope of Perry’s questions for Metz, which resulted in a stalemate — the judge could not be reached for clarification — and a limited deposition.

Perry asked Metz, who did not attend the July 14, 2017, meeting, but had recently listened to the recording, if he heard Mapes refer to a land swap that occurred in 2001 between the city and the Bridge Tender Inn.

Metz said that he did recall Mapes mentioned the land swap and a “P&Z thing.”

During the deposition, Barfield played portions of recordings from the CNOBB meeting, in which Mapes could be heard discussing the land swap, but the discussion was terminated.

At the time of the CNOBB meeting, the P&Z had continued a June 21, 2017, public hearing for expansion of the Bridge Tender Inn.

The quasi-judicial hearing was continued until the applicant could provide more information about the proposed development.

In such hearings, the board sits as the judge, and can only hear evidence presented as part of the hearing, either testimony or as exhibits.

On July 21, Metz filed a records request with the city for information about the restaurant, including the land swap.

Perry closed the deposition, reserving the right to reopen the deposition if the judge agreed to widen the scope of questioning.

Algae blooms plague waterways, inch toward AMI

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Boaters on Daddy’s Time Out head out June 27 from One Particular Harbour Marina on Perico Island, where brown gumbo algae is visible in the water. The algae also produced a foul odor at the marina. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff
The algae Lyngbya wollei — known as brown “gumbo” — forms a carpet on the surface of the water in Robinson Preserve June 27. Islander Photo: Courtesy Manatee County
A floating turbidity barrier is stationed where the waters of Robinson Preserve lead out toTampa Bay, preventing further Lyngbya algae from the county park. The barrier was placed June 27. Islander Photo: Courtesy Manatee County

The mats of Lyngbya wollei, also known as brown “gumbo” algae, were so thick in the waters in Robinson Preserve June 27 that wading birds stood on them.

That’s the report Michael Elswick, manager of the natural resources division of the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department, forwarded his boss, Charlie Hunsicker.

Mats as thick as 12 inches and as large as two-tenths of an acre clogged the waterways at the preserve, preventing kayakers from passing through and “stopping a jon boat cold,” Elswick wrote in the email.

Lyngbya “gumbo” algae is a type of cyanobacteria or blue-green algae common in the spring-summer months around Anna Maria Island. It forms thick mats that resemble clumps of grass and sewage at the water surface, mostly in backwaters and bays.

Land management rangers and supervisors from the county natural resources department moved the brown algae, dragging large clumps to the mouth of the Manatee River and into its current.

“They corralled the algae, moved it into the tidal channel and constructed a floating turbidity barrier to keep it from coming back in,” Hunsicker told The Islander June 27.

The preserve clearing operation took about four hours.

Elswick wrote in his email to Hunsicker that people were still enjoying the preserve, despite the odor associated with brown algae, which lingered in the mangrove roots.

He also stated a caution: “I would speculate the decomposition of large volumes of algae outside Robinson waterways may act to lower dissolved oxygen further. We’re bracing for a fish kill and will act quickly to remove those as necessary.”

Some dead fish were reported June 22-24, when blue-green algae appeared in the Manatee and Braden rivers.

Blue-green troubles in local waters

Ryan McClash was standing on his dock June 23 in the Riverdale subdivision of Bradenton, talking with Suncoast Waterkeeper’s Andy Mele of Bradenton.

Blue-green algae appeared in his canal in the 4200 block of Second Avenue Northeast a week earlier. By June 23, the water was bright green.

McClash told Mele the river looked like it was dyed green.

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was taking water samples from the Manatee River to determine the types of algae present, as well as toxicities.

Tests June 18 and June 20 confirmed the presence of a cyanobacteria, Aphanizomenon flos-aquae, in the river, including the canal in McClash’s neighborhood. But no toxins were detected. The same algae were found at all but one of the tested river locations.

A sample taken June 19 near Ellenton was dominated by Cuspidothrix.sp, a freshwater algae that can produce toxins — but none were found in the DEP sampling.

The latest DEP samples were pulled June 27, as reports persisted and another algae, the brown“gumbo,” was clogging up the waters near the mouth of the river, as well as in the backwater, bays and sounds.

Boaters using the marina at One Particular Harbour June 26 found heavy mats of “gumbo” algae, but it had diminished the following day.

Dee Ann Miller, of the DEP press office, said the agency would continue to respond to alerts about algae and that persistent blooms would be monitored and retested.

Boat captains, scientists weigh in

“I’ve been here my whole life. I’ve never seen this,” Capt. Scott Moore said of the bright-green hue in the Manatee River, where he often leads charter fishing trips.

“It’s up the river from the Green Bridge on. Down at the mouth, no,” he said.

Moore blamed the blooms on fertilizer and nutrient runoff, as well as over-development and under-management of water issues.

“We’ve got to pass some laws. All this new development, all these septic tanks, all this fertilizing. We have to get control of this,” he said.

Cynthia Heil, director of the new Red Tide Institute at Mote Marine Laboratory, told The Islander June 27 that alga, especially freshwater types, “like the heat, love the sun and like the nutrients.”

With less rain than usual and higher than normal summer temps, conditions are ripe for blooms.

“They like a lot of sunlight and runoff. Lyngbya likes iron. Some are toxic, others not,” she said.

Meanwhile, Hunsicker is holding his breath.

“What we are seeing is a magnificent joining of sunlight, temperatures and nutrients, and some of the hottest days on record conspiring together to make a big algae bloom,” he said.

“The Saharan dust we are getting in our atmosphere has iron. All the dead fish from last year’s event went to the bottom and are still decaying. They didn’t just disappear. Mother Nature is responding,” he added.

“On the other hand, it’s not red tide. Yet.”

About algae

• Aphanizomenon flos-aquae is a species of cyanobacteria found in brackish and fresh waters around the world. It is known to produce endotoxins, the toxic chemicals released as cells die. However, not all forms of this algae are toxic.
• Cuspidothrix.sp is a species of cyanobacteria similar to A. flos-aquae. It grows in fresh and brackish waters, but is not as common or widespread and more prone to hot climates.
• Lyngba wollei is a filamentous cyanobacterium that forms thick mats on the water’s surface. It is common throughout North America, but large blooms can degrade water quality, cause skin irritation and impair natural habitats.
• Karenia brevis is the scientific name for red tide. In high concentrations, it emits toxins that can cause respiratory issues in humans and marine mammals, and can kill fish, shellfish, birds and mammals.

‘Bortie Too’ tagged, tracked in race for research

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With a satellite tracking device affixed to its carapace, a loggerhead sea turtle — named Bortie Too for sponsor Bortell’s Lounge in Anna Maria — makes its way June 21 from Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach to the Gulf of Mexico as part of the 12th Annual Sea Turtle Conservancy’s Tour de Turtles, a sea turtle research marathon that officially starts Aug. 1. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes
With a tracking device affixed to its carapace, a loggerhead sea turtle — named Bortie Too for sponsor Bortell’s Lounge in Anna Maria — makes its way June 21 back to the Gulf of Mexico. Islander Photos: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes

With a satellite tracking device affixed to its carapace, a loggerhead sea turtle — named Bortie Too for sponsor Bortell’s Lounge in Anna Maria — makes its way June 21 from Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach to the Gulf of Mexico as part of the 12th Annual Sea Turtle Conservancy’s Tour de Turtles, a sea turtle research marathon that officially starts Aug. 1. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes

One sea turtle that nested overnight on Anna Maria Island got a lot more than expected during its trip ashore.

Bortie Too, a female loggerhead, was tagged and released June 21 as part of the 12th Annual Sea Turtle Conservancy’s Tour de Turtles, a sea turtle marathon that officially starts Aug. 1.

AMITW partnered with the conservancy to tag and release the female sea turtle, which cost $5,000. Sponsors included Waterline Marina Resort and Beach Club in Holmes Beach and Bortell’s Lounge in Anna Maria. Bortell’s owner Steve Rose funded the tag and dedicated the loggerhead’s nest to his father, Jack Rose, who died June 14.

Teams of turtle watch volunteers scoured the island shore late June 20 looking for a turtle to tag and release, before volunteer Karen Norton and AMITW intern Emma Bouchard spotted the loggerhead on the beach near Eighth Street South in Bradenton Beach.

After it nested, conservancy staff placed the turtle in an enclosure and held it for the morning release.

Dan Evans, senior research biologist for the STC, with help from volunteers, prepared the turtle’s carapace for the tag by filing off barnacles. He attached the device with epoxy.

Once the device was affixed, about 150 people watched from the shore as Bortie Too crawled to the Gulf of Mexico.

According to Evans, the tracking device doesn’t bother the turtle and eventually will fall off.

Evans said June 21 that the tag used for this year’s race is sturdier than previous years, with less of a chance of malfunction.

“It’s a little bit more streamlined, the antenna is protected a little bit better and it’s somewhat more programmable,” he said. “So we are actually better able to control the variables and the data it’s collecting.”

STC researchers use satellite telemetry to track the turtles. Every time Bortie Too lifts its head above water, the antenna on the tracker sends a signal, letting the scientists — and visitors to the Tour de Turtles website, tourdeturtles.org — know where the turtle is located.

During the lead up to the Aug. 1 start and during the tour, Bortie Too can be tracked at conserveturtles.org/trackingmap/?id=226.

As part of the tour, sea turtles are tagged and released from beaches in Costa Rica, Panama and Florida. The turtles then compete in a “marathon” to swim the most miles over three months. During the tour, the turtles are expected to travel to seagrass beds to restore weight lost while nesting.

Evans said he investigates whether loggerheads travel to one consistent foraging ground or multiple locations to feed.

He said his work has shown there are multiple places the sea turtles forage, including the Bahamas and Cuba.

“That’s part of this research, to really emphasize how international sea turtles are,” Evans said. “Sea turtles that nest on our beaches, more often than not, go to other countries to feed. So it becomes really important to find those connections and figure out which countries we need to try to work with to protect them as a shared resource.”

This turtle was named Bortie Too, as Bortell’s also sponsored its predecessor, Bortie, which was AMITW’s contestant in the 2018 marathon.

Bortie traveled 359 miles between Anna Maria Island and Everglades National Park during its migration to place 10th out of 14 contestants when the race ended Nov. 1, 2018.

However, the tracking device showed that Bortie came ashore three more times, possibly nesting during the visits to beaches south of Anna Maria Island.

As of June 21, Bortie’s tag was still active.

In 2017, AMITW won the Tour de Turtles with Eliza Ann, a more than 300-pound loggerhead that traveled 1,693 miles during the marathon and crawled ashore four times. This was the first time AMITW had proof of a sea turtle nesting multiple times in one season on the island.

Eliza Ann’s tracking device only recently stopped working.

“We just got nearly two years off of her transmitter, which is excellent,” Lexie Beach, STC communications coordinator said June 21.

Beach said the Anna Maria Island release was the first tagging in the United States for the 2019 tour.

“It really was amazing,” she said. “This is the biggest crowd we’ve ever had, and I think everyone really looks forward to it.”

Ileana Szasz of Kissimmee, who traveled to the island for the release with her children, Broderick, 5, and Stellarose, 1, said, “It was just a really beautiful thing to see a group of people come together like this to support sea turtles and also to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with my children.”

She added, “I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

FWC, Mote rescue ailing juvenile manatee found in Holmes Beach basin

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FWC and Mote corral an ailing juvenile manatee in the basin at the Waterline Marina, Holmes Beach, load it on an FWC manatee rescue boat and whisk it to Tampa Zoo for evaluation and treatment. Islander Photos: Gillian Kendall
A FWC manatee rescue team and representatives from Mote load and prepare a juvenile manatee May 17 on the FWC boat for transport to Tampa.

By Gillian Kendall, Special to The Islander

A juvenile manatee in distress was rescued May 17 from the basin on Marina Drive in Holmes Beach.

The ailing marine mammal had been spotted by Steve Ryan of Cincinnati, a guest at the Waterline Marina, Resort and Beach Club, 5325 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach.

Ryan went to the hotel reception desk for help, where supervisor Giselle Brock phoned the hotline for Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

Brock passed her phone to another employee, an engineer, who went outdoors to keep track of the animal’s location. “Danny has the kindest heart,” Brock said. “I knew he would help.”

Among the docks in the marina, a small crowd gathered, watching for air bubbles. The manatee was alive, but barely moving, it’s head surfacing only occasionally to breathe.

Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, Andy Garrett, manatee rescue coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, had been getting calls and texts. “We were hearing about a small, lethargic animal with a weird lesion, which didn’t seem to be acting right. We got photos and we agreed it was emaciated.”

Garrett gathered a team for the rescue.

“We had seven FWC people there and three from Mote got there, too. When we got there, we split up. Two guys, a volunteer named Tim and one of our biologists, Sean Tennant, went in the water,” Garrett said.

The two men stood chest-deep in the murky brown water as the team put a large net with floats in the water. “We looped some net out away from the boat slip and had the two swimmers kind of corral it into the net,” said Garrett. “They just gently encouraged it to go where we wanted it to go.”

Within a few minutes, the net surrounding the manatee was hauled in gently but rapidly, allowing the manatee to be lifted aboard the FWC boat, which then quickly departed.

Onboard, a worker poured buckets of water over the manatee to protect its skin and encourage it to breathe, Garrett said.

They young manatee was on its way to get help.

Despite the team’s best efforts, Garrett said he could not predict the eventual outcome. “I don’t know what’s going on with that manatee; it’s in bad shape. It’s about a six-and-a-half-foot male, probably a few years old at most.

“It had some other lesions. In one area it looked like the top layer of skin was missing; it has a weird, almost cut look to it. I didn’t get a whole lot of time to look at it. We got going as soon as we got the animal back in our boat.”

After they landed the boat, they took the manatee to Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park in Tampa.

Garrett said it looked as if a layer of skin was missing. “If it was a disease you’d expect the edges to be necrotic, but this was so clean-cut. We’re hopeful Zoo Tampa can figure out what’s going on.”

At Zoo Tampa, Garrett said, the staff will draw blood and look for infections. “If it’s underweight, which this one seems to be, they may try to hydrate it with fluids and give it some antibiotics.”

The overall goal, he said, is to rehab the manatee to go back out where it was found.

Garrett said his team handles about 100 stranded manatees a year. The calls for help are irregular and come from all over the state.

“We can go weeks without anything happening, or sometimes it’s more frequent.”

Once an animal is identified as requiring assistance, Garrett said, “we want to make sure we have a safe plan — it can be dangerous.” Manatees can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.

“Human safety comes first, and then the animal safety is very important as well. This rescue was a lot safer because the animal was small and thin and not likely to give us trouble,” he said.

“We rely on the public to let us know about animals in distress,” Garrett said. “We get a lot of calls at the FWC hotline, 888-404-3922, 24 hours a day.”

Brown ‘gumbo’ algae invades island

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Another bout of brown algae returns to Key Royale Drive May 6 at 65th Street in Holmes Beach. Islander Photo: Christine Wright
Brown algae blankets the Key Royale canal at 65th Street during the last week of March and first week of May. Islander Photo: Christine Wright
A closeup May 9 shows the fiberous sheath of oblong-shaped algae at 66th Street. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell

“People call it gumbo,” Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth said May 9.

At the end of April and beginning of May, pad-like algal blooms pushed into waters around Anna Maria Island, hung around for about a week and receded.

But then the unwanted visitor came back strong and stinky.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection began testing May 9 in Holmes Beach to determine the toxicity of the large brownish oblong algae mats.

The DEP collected samples from two Holmes Beach locations — bayside at 26th Street and the canal north of Westbay Point & Moorings, 6500 Flotilla Drive.

Also May 9, DEP spokeswoman Weesam Khoury would not speculate on why the bloom was occurring and did not know when testing results would be made available.

The samples will be analyzed in Tallahassee for toxicity and algal type.

Similar testing from Lake Okeechobee, along the Calaloosahatchee River to Fort Myers, has been performed in the past month. And, in places, whitish mold has grown on the brown pads.

As to why sites were chosen, she said there were several reports from Charlotte County to Manatee County that prompted testing for six types of “microcystins,” including toxic cyanobacteria, known as the blue-green algae, and three other toxins.

“Residents and visitors are always advised to avoid coming into contact with algae and to stay out of the water where a visible bloom is present,” Khoury said in a May 9 email, adding the DEP will monitor and retest persistent blooms.

In Sarasota County, the DEP identified Lyngbya wollei, a large diameter cyanobacteria with the same thick sheath and dense mats, according to Stephannie Kettle, of Mote Marine Laboratory.

Lyngbya nuisance blooms are known to degrade water quality, damage beaches and shorelines, cause skin irritation, reduce biodiversity and impair habitat and food webs. “Mote doesn’t work with this type of algae,” Kettle said.

Mote, as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, research and monitor another algae, Karenia brevis, also known as red tide, which pushed into southwest Florida in high concentrations between August 2017 and January 2019, causing massive fish kills and deaths of manatees, dolphins and other marine animals and birds in the hundreds.

The current algae is not red tide.

Also testing the water in May was the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, a branch of the FWC.

Spokeswoman Kelly Richmond said volunteers sampled locations at the Rod & Reel Pier May 6 and School Key, known as Key Royale, May 1.

Results from the FWRI testing showed no harmful algal blooms, she said. Volunteers will continue sampling the water and may add other test locations.

Although the stench improved and no HABs were identified on Anna Maria Island the second week of May, some people living near the algal blooms expressed their disgust.

“Last week, after it sat in the sun, it was really strong. Like sewage. Even inside our house,” Holmes Beach resident Christine Wright said May 9.

Titsworth agreed, “People are hating it.”

She has asked Barney Salmon, the city director of development services, to research the outbreak.

“I firmly believe it comes from too much nutrients,” the mayor said, adding “It happens a lot.”

Reporting blooms

The DEP encourages the reporting of alga blooms to its hotline at 855-305-3903 or online.

The day the Skyway fell

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A tugboat pushes the Summit Venture from the wreckage after the May 9, 1980, crash into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as a small boat in the center searches for survivors. Thirty-five people died. Islander Photo: Gene Page III
A Florida Highway Patrol officer helps secure the yellow Buick stopped at the edge of the mangled Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Driver Richard Hornbuckle of St. Petersburg stopped just shy of disaster that day, having walked back from the brink with his three passengers. Islander File Photo: Paul Roat
The view of the Skyway Bridge disaster scene unfolded from the top of the second span looking northwest toward the Summit Venture after it moved back from the bridge. Islander File Photo: Paul Roat
The Greyhound bus that plunged off the Skyway bridge May 9, 1980, is hauled up by a crane from Tampa Bay. Islander File Photo: Gene Page III
Shortly after the crash and the squall subsided, the Summit Venture anchored alongside the bridge with Skyway roadbed and girders on the bow and a crushed piling to its starboard. Islander File Photo: Gene Page III
An Eckerd College marine rescue team was first on the scene at the Skyway Bridge disaster and set about helping with recovery amid the wreckage. Islander File Photo: Paul Roat

‘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.”

 

Today’s Skyway

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.

Jury convicts man for murder of girlfriend’s toddler

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David Vickers testifies in his defense April 25 on charges in the death of a 17-month-old boy. A jury found Vickers, who lived at the time of the murder in Holmes Beach, guilty of in less than two hours of deliberations. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell
Luca Sholey smiles ear to ear on a playground with mom, Melissa Wolfe. Islander Courtesy Photo

A jury found David Vickers guilty of second-degree murder and child neglect in the August 2017 death of a Holmes Beach toddler.

Vickers’ five-day trial at the Manatee County Judicial Center in Bradenton concluded April 26 with the convictions in less than two hours. Twelfth Circuit Judge Lon Arend presided and the jury consisted of two women and four men.

Luca Sholey was 17 months old Aug. 23, 2017, when he died from a lack of oxygen after suffering four broken ribs and other injuries to the chest, mouth, lips and ears, according to medical testimony at the trial.

Testimony for the state came from the toddler’s mother, Melissa Wolfe, her father Donnie Wolfe, Luca’s father Eric Sholey, Holmes Beach Police Sgt. Tom Fraser, Manatee County EMS and information technology employees and medical experts.

Vickers was the only witness called for the defense. He took the stand and spoke softly.

Vickers lived at the time with girlfriend Melissa Wolfe and her children, Luca and his 3-year-old sister, in Donnie Wolfe’s apartment in Holmes Beach. Vickers moved in with them in June 2017.

Vickers testified that to save money, he offered to watch Luca and the daughter — that he fed and got the children ready for bed most nights.

Melissa Wolfe, who was looking for a caregiver, was working as a waitress six days a week, supporting Vickers and the children.

The defendant told the jury that at that time he was addicted to narcotics.

The evening of Aug. 21, 2017, Vickers said he took fentanyl and fell asleep on the toddler.

When he awoke several minutes later, he found himself on top of Luca, who was discolored and not breathing.

He previously told police he found Luca in his crib and told the jurors he’d lied because he was scared, afraid of going back to prison.

Vickers also said he loved Luca and never harmed him. The defense blamed some of the child’s previous injuries on an accidental fall down the stairs, but admitted Vickers was not “ready” to be a proper caregiver — on drugs and just out of prison.

The medical experts, however, concluded the injuries were consistent with abuse — such as the bruised chest, broken ribs, fingernails dug into his mouth and squeezed cheeks.

On cross-examination, Vickers admitted to contacting an old girlfriend the week the child died, fearing he would be kicked out of the family apartment despite plans to marry Melissa Wolfe, saying he had “a problem with fidelity.”

Wolfe and Vickers obtained a marriage license Aug. 18, 2017.

Vickers also acknowledged he videotaped Luca experiencing respiratory distress that day, but did not tell Melissa or the toddler’s father, who regularly inquired about the children, including that evening.

Vickers called 911 and attempted to administer CPR until a West Manatee Fire Rescue firefighter arrived and took over life-saving measures.

Luca was resuscitated, but later died in the hospital, according to trial testimony.

Vickers was arrested in October 2017 on charges of murder, neglect and aggravated manslaughter.

He has been in the county jail since his Aug. 24, 2017, arrest for a revoked driver’s license and possessing marijuana.

He was re-arrested Aug. 30, 2017, for stealing a laptop and stereo from Melissa Wolfe.

The murder and neglect charges came after Holmes Beach police, Manatee County Sheriff’s Crimes Against Children and Florida Child Protective Services found evidence of child abuse, including an autopsy showing a swollen brain and broken ribs in various stages of healing.

Vickers faces life in prison. A sentencing hearing is expected this month.

According to a news release from the state attorney’s office, the prosecutor plans to seek a sentence of life in prison as a reoffender.

“That’s what happens when you’re found guilty of killing a child,” Campoli said.

Vickers was a felon convicted of property-related crimes. He was released from prison May 18, 2017.

“The loss of a child is always tragic to the family and to the community,” Assistant State Attorney Dawn Buff said, adding how senseless it was to lose “a beautiful being.”

Buff and Assistant State Attorney Lauren Benson handled the prosecution.

“It’s an honor to walk the family through the process and seek justice for Luca,” Buff added.

The prosecutors dismissed the aggravated manslaughter count after the jury verdict was announced.

“Guilty as charged,” said attorney Joe Campoli after the verdict, adding he believed the state had “a very strong case.” Campoli was Vickers’ trial attorney, appointed as a regional public defender.

 

Mom speaks out after murder verdict

In Melissa Wolfe’s words:

Hearing the verdict was a bittersweet moment. My son finally got justice.

The trial was painful and hard but my family and I are eternally grateful to the state attorney’s office, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, the Holmes Beach Police Department and everyone involved in this case for all the compassion and dedication to achieving justice for my son.

We are beyond thankful to the jury for coming to the verdict that they did.

It restores my faith in humanity.

My heart goes out to (David Vicker’s) mother as well, in a way she lost her son too. She is a kind woman. And I know it was hard for her, too.

Right now, my family is still just trying to heal from the devastating loss of my son.