UNEXPECTED TURN

The day the bridge came down


A car halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, after the freighter Summit Venture struck the bridge on May 9, 1980. Thirty-five people died.

Jackie Green / The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 11:28 a.m.

For this St. Pete native, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge was a childhood fixture until — in the worst ship/bridge disaster in U.S. history — a life-ending tragedy brought it down. Thirty years later, Bill DeYoung decodes its sad mystery in “Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's

Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down."

For many years, I had a recurring dream about driving across a ribbon-thin road that stretched across the open ocean. On either side, I remember, there was nothing, no buildings, no billboards, no trees, nothing. Just a drop-off into cold, silver-blue water. In the dream, I had a sense of purpose in continuing forward, as if stopping even for a second would be disastrous. I didn't know why. I didn't know where I was going.

Periodically, inexplicably, the oceanic highway would rise up, sloping higher and higher over the water, until I was almost driving in the clouds. Still, I continued.

It was always frightening. Tellingly, I never saw another car. This was a journey that I took alone.

Looking back, I wonder if this dream, which I'd had since I was in my 20s, was the spark that ignited my passion for the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which spans 15 miles of Lower Tampa Bay. Over open water.

I was born and raised in St. Petersburg, and the Skyway was something you saw and experienced all the time. I don't recall thinking too much about it one way or the other, except that at its highest point, 150 feet over the bay, it was scary. As a kid, as a teen, as an adult, I always got a little queasy when I reached the top and looked out across the bay.

On the morning of May 9, 1980, a 606-foot freighter coming into Tampa Bay was caught in a violent squall that materialized virtually out of nowhere, and sent the ship crashing into one of the Skyway's high support piers. Nearly 1,300 feet of roadway collapsed, and seven vehicles, including a Greyhound bus, fell from the highest point. Thirty-five people died.

It was, and is, the worst ship/bridge disaster in American history, and one of the blackest days Florida's ever experienced. I remembered it only too well.

Now, I've been a professional writer and editor for more than three decades, and by and large, I am an entertainment journalist. I write a lot about music and musicians, and I suppose I always assumed that were I to “do” a book, it would be on that subject.

At the end of 2008, just after I'd moved to Savannah, Ga., I was thinking about the Skyway collapse. Online, I read every commemorative anniversary story, and with each successive piece, I noticed that some of the “facts” had changed. The passage of time was blurring history.

This drove me crazy. What really happened? How — and why? I began to dig deeper. Soon I got pretty familiar with the principal characters, especially John Lerro, the harbor pilot who'd been in command of the ship. In Lerro, I found a protagonist right out of a Shakespearean tragedy. Here was a man who was simply doing his job, and over the course of two minutes — for that was all it took — his life, his world, everything he knew, came crashing down.

Of course, I never forgot those 35 poor souls whose lives were lost. But I found myself coming back, again and again, to John Lerro. Even after all these years, the perception remained that he was somehow a villain, a drunk, an incompetent.

He was, I discovered, none of those things.

It took nearly three years to research and write “Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down.”

“What makes you think you can do this?” I kept asking myself. “You're an entertainment writer. This is serious stuff.”

And now, without getting too precious about it, I feel as if I've contributed something to Florida history. I've written a pretty good non-fiction narrative, and hopefully encouraged people to reconsider one man's lost reputation.

Where did it come from? I've learned not to question the Muse. But I'll tell you this: I don't have that dream anymore.

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