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Florida Matters: Sunshine Skyway Bridge Disaster 35 Years Later

It was Friday, May 9, 1980 at 7:33 a.m. when the freighter Summit Venture rammed into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge during a severe storm.  The roadway above crashed into the waters of Tampa Bay. Though the blinding rain, drivers in the southbound lanes were unable to see the missing roadway ahead.  Six cars, a truck, and a Greyhound Bus plunged into the waters below, and 35 people were killed.

This week on Florida Matters, we'll take a look at the disaster with Bill DeYoung. He's the author of "Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down." In this preview, DeYoung describes what happened at 7:33 on the morning of May 9, 1980.

This week on Florida Matters (Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 a.m), we take a look back at the Skyway disaster with Bill DeYoung, the author of “Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down.” We also hear from co-pilot trainee Bruce Atkins, who was on his last training mission and was alongside Captain John Lerro that morning; and Bill Covert, who led the search and rescue team from nearby Eckerd College.

Audio of the distress call to the U.S. Coast Guard

Here are some of the emails we received from listeners who recall that day 35 years ago:

Stanley ONeal of Tampa writes:

"I would like to share just a small portion of my memories of the Skyway disaster. May of '80 I was commuting to work at 5401 W Kennedy (where Kennedy dead ends to Howard Franklin onramp) from my Carrollwood home in a dark driving rain so hard that traffic was beginning to slow as I approached Hillsborough Ave overpass instead of at MLK (Buffalo Ave at the time) as it normally did in those days. I often listened to QSR out of Sarasota but the weather was so bad I had no reception and tuned to Q105.  Reports began coming in of a disaster unfolding on the Skyway but information was spotty eventually hearing the skyway was closed at the tollgates. Arriving at work the TV was already tuned to then CBS affiliate WTVT 13 where gradually more details of the event were unfolding. Though described in words nothing prepared me for the blurry video images shown later on TV as nothing could knock down the Skyway could it?  The images were horrific and everyone was stunned by what we saw.  The remaining Northbound span was closed for several days but my brother and I lined up to be one of the first vehicles to drive over the now two way bridge.  As we drove South approaching the peak of the bridge and looking to our right we could see the still dangling section of southbound span.  It gave me vertigo and I felt I too was going to fall into the water. A sad day in Tampa history, for the victims and their families."

June Brasgalla of Sarasota writes:

"I would like to share my experiences with the Sunshine Skyway. I lived in Gulfport in the 1950’s and we often visited my sister in Sarasota via the ferry boat. It was a thrill to see the new Skyway go up and to be  riding over it on the day it opened. I believe that was Labor Day, Sept. 6, 1954. I was a junior at U. of F. and several girls decided to go to Miami for the weekend. On our return, we found we were among thousands of locals who wanted to “try out” the new Skyway. It was narrower than it is today, and cars overheated by the dozens! It seemed every third car was overheated. The trip took much longer than we expected. Later, when I no longer lived in Gulfport,  I was staying in Bradenton while making  daily visits to Gulfport to see an aunt who was hospitalized. One night, Jan. 27, 1980 , we were returning from St. Pete to Bradenton with three young sons in the car. The wind and rain were fierce and frightening. The boys were scared. My husband teased them by dramatically grabbing the steering wheel and saying, “ooo, I don’t know if I can control this car!”  The next morning, my brother-in-law woke us, telling us we had better allow extra time to get to Gulfport. “Why?” we asked. “ Because there is no more bridge!”  What a shock! A Sarasota  friend of mine  went to the dog tracks with his father the night before. They got lucky and stayed late. They made the decision to get a motel and drive home the next morning.  They went over the bridge about one half hour before the crash.  They were just arriving in Sarasota when they heard on the radio about the bridge.  He shook for weeks!"

Bob O'Neill writes:

"I am a 69 year old Sarasota native and I was on my way to Tampa on the day the ship hit the South Skyway Bridge. As I threw my token in the basket at the toll booth, my sleeve became soaked because of the torrential wind and rain. After getting onto the bridge, I stayed in the left lane in case the strong wind blew me to the side of the bridge.  As I approached the curve before the steep incline of the bridge, I noticed a ship in an unusual place.   At the time I could not see the missing bridge span as the wind and rain limited my visibility.  I believe it was just seconds after the collision had occurred. As I started up the incline I noticed that the steel span from the southbound bridge was laying across the bow of the ship that had run into the bridge.  The scene was surreal. It reminded me of my Erector Set.  I could not believe my eyes.  I then looked to the left as I was getting near the top of the incline and realized how much of the south bridge was missing.  There was a car stopped on the section of the bridge that was hanging down. I saw a man walking toward the car and I heard in a report later that he was going to close the car doors.  I only remember two other cars ahead of me at the time, making me the third vehicle northbound after the accident. I called my wife to let her know I was OK."

Ron Klinesmith writes:

"I was driving for Mac Papers, I had the southern route that day, I would have been on the bridge at the time of the accident. I had left something back in Tampa, I was living in St. Pete. and drove the truck home, God has blessed me that day, because I had to go back through Tampa, rather than driving across the Skyway. This is a day I will always remember!"

Here are some of the comments we got on our Facebook page:

Mark DeAmelio: "Thank you for reaffirming my irrational fear of driving over this bridge!" Mari Reive: "I remember it. It was right before my wedding." Liz A Kuzma: "I remember going strawberry picking the day before and going on that Bridge early in the morning." Dr. Greg Arterburn: "I was driving south on Gulf Blvd. in Treasure Island when the storm hit. There were a few tall buildings on the west side of the street that blocked the strong winds and rain from the Gulf of Mexico. When there was an open area, I could hardly see to drive. On the radio, I heard the first news about the accident, and I proceeded to Palms of Pasadena Hospital thinking that some of the injured might be taken there. Unfortunately, there only one survivor."

Carson Cooper has become a favorite of WUSF listeners as the host of "Morning Edition" on WUSF 89.7 since he took the job in 2000. Carson has worked in Tampa Bay radio for three decades.
Lottie Watts is our Florida Mattersproducer, and she also covers health and health policy for.