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Remembering the Sunshine Skyway Bridge Collapse

Bill DeYoung

Bruce Atkins was 32 years old, an experienced mariner, and an apprentice harbor pilot in Tampa Bay. It was his last training mission, and he was shadowing Captain John Lerro, as Lerro steered the 606 foot cargo ship Summit Venture through  the  twists and turns of the shipping channel in the shallow bay.

May 9th, 1980, was a rainy, misty morning -- but not unusual Florida weather. No one predicted the sudden, freak storm with gale force winds, that seemed to come out of nowhere.

"It became a blinding, driving, rain, wind," Atkins recalls.

The white-out conditions couldn't have come at a worse point. Lerro was closing in on a 13 degree turn to port which would take him under the Skyway bridge. Atkins was watching the radar, which now showed nothing. They were enveloped in a wall of rain. Visibility was gone. And perhaps most importantly - they'd lost radio contact with an oil tanker, which had been coming towards the bridge in the opposite direction. Dropping anchor at that point would have put them directly -- or so they thought -- in the tanker's path.

"The only prudent decision was, we knew where the buoy was, we thought we were in the channel, was to make the turn as you normally would on normal days and continue on the course under the bridge,"
 says Atkins.

What they didn't know … was that the tanker had pulled over. And, tragically, the tropical storm force wind had shifted direction. Bill DeYoung, a St. Petersburg native who's written a book on the incident, recounts what happened next.

"The gusts, which exceed 70 miles per hour, start blowing him sideways . His radar's gone, this is all happening so quick. As he's making the turn, a ray of sun comes through the clouds and he sees the Sunshine Skyway bridge and he realizes, I'm not where I'm supposed to be. "

Lerro ordered the anchors dropped and the engines full astern, but it wasn't enough to stop the 20 thousand ton ship.

"The ship grazed...barely touched it and the whole bridge crumbled, 1300 feet of bridge came down, just like that," DeYoung says. "Lerro is 500 feet away in the wheelhouse of Summit Venture, absolutely helpless."

Atkins was alongside Lerro in the wheelhouse, watching it unfold. He remembers the greyhound bus and the cars plummeting into the water. He says as horrifying as it was, he still had to keep working and trying to respond.

Lerro put out the distress call, frantically trying to get the bridge closed to traffic:

"May Day May Day May Day Coast Guard……Stop the traffic on that skyway bridge!"

Meanwhile, Bill Covert received a page that a boat had hit the Skyway Bridge.  -- and rushed to the docks. Covert led the search and rescue team at Eckerd College, near the bridge at the southernmost tip of St. Petersburg. He and three Eckerd students boarded a motor boat and started heading to the bridge, thinking maybe a fishing boat had taken on water. They rounded a spit of land, and the wreckage came into sight:

"The shock was incredible," Covert remembers. "We couldn't believe what we were seeing! That it was a ship that hit the bridge, and the bridge was down. It was eerily quiet. … We saw all the steel and girders in the water. A small boat came up and they were yelling and pointing, and we saw the wheels of the greyhound bus bouncing on the surface."

Twenty-six people died in that bus. Covert's team was able to pull out seven bodies  through the smashed windshield, and heaved them onto their small vessel. They ran out of body bags, and ran out of space. They had to tie two of the bodies onto the diving platform.

The Summit Venture's crew had picked up the one survivor -- the driver of a pickup truck that bounced off the deck of the ship before going in the water. On board the Summit Venture, all was quiet. Atkins had time to absorb what had happened, and he'd gone out onto the wing of the bridge and gotten sick.

"After this accident happened you stand there and say,  this is not explainable. this is not going to go away. This will be with you for a long, long time. For me, this was absolutely a life-changing moment."

Lots of things changed after the disaster. Bill DeYoung stands on the remnant of the bridge, now a popular fishing pier . The rebuilt bridge is just to the west and Deyoung points out the changes that have been made.

"One of the things they did, other than raise the height, is they widened the channel underneath, and specifically, these bumpers that they have out there, these concrete islands, this is all in the wake of Summit Venture. Those things are there to keep ships from hitting the bridge."

Lerro was cleared of any wrongdoing, though Atkins says he suffered tremendous guilt until his death in 2002. Atkins had no role in the crash, but it caused him to give up his lifelong dream of becoming a harbor pilot. He left Tampa Bay and went back home to Massachusetts where he he says he's had a good life. But even now, he say's, he's haunted whenever the weather takes a turn for the worse.


Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.
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