Florida

35 years later, a memorial for victims of Sunshine Skyway Bridge tragedy

A car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, Fla., after the freighter Summit Venture struck the bridge during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span, May 1980. At least 31 persons were killed, 23 of them aboard a bus that toppled into the water.
A car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, Fla., after the freighter Summit Venture struck the bridge during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span, May 1980. At least 31 persons were killed, 23 of them aboard a bus that toppled into the water. AP FILE/1980

Lynwood Armstrong and John "Chip" Calloway Jr. were freshman at Tuskeegee University in Alabama, best friends who considered each other brothers because they were so close and had developed a deep bond.

Armstrong, who was studying architecture, and Calloway, a mechanical engineering student, decided to take the bus home for Mother's Day weekend 1980, packed with other students visiting their families. As fate would have it, Armstrong got off the bus in Tampa and said goodbye to his buddy, Calloway, who proceeded on is itinerary to cross the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay and head home to Miami.

It would be the last time they ever saw each other.

On Saturday, family members of the victims, some from as far away as California, friends, well-wishers and dignitaries, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, gathered on the north side of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at the Pinellas County rest area, adjacent to Blackthorn Memorial Park. A new six-foot granite memorial was unveiled with a bronze plaque on the front, listing all the names of the people whose lives were cut short.

On the morning of May 9, 1980, a sudden, violent storm rolled into the bay and a freighter, the Summit Venture, collided with the bridge. Six cars, a pickup truck, and a Greyhound passenger bus full of Tuskeegee, Ala., students, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and a baby, fell from the broken bridge and plunged 150 feet into the water to their deaths. Just one person out of the 36 who went into the water survived.

For Armstrong, the memory of that day lives on.

"I miss my brother a lot. We had so many plans. I can't wait for that day to see him and his father at the Pearly Gates. I just can't wait," Armstrong said, referring to Calloway's father, who passed away a few years ago.

Journalist and author Bill DeYoung of St. Petersburg, who felt compelled years later to write a book about the tragedy, was instrumental in bringing the memorial to life through a fundraising project he started.

"We raised all the money we needed, about $9,000, to put this up. It seems everybody in the community wanted this happen," he said before the dedication.

"This is a story (referring to the bad weather) that plays itself out in Tampa Bay all the time," DeYoung added. "It just happened to be bad timing."

Calloway's 88-year-old mother, Grace, who was joined at the dedication by a son and daughter, Gwendolyn, said her faith got her through time after she lost her son, the baby of the family.

"I can't imagine what people do who have no faith," she said. "We had a constant source of good friends who have been with us through the years."

Calloway, who spoke of her son as a loving child, said that a memorial was established for him at his Tuskeegee.

Tammie Pryor King lost her father, James, to the tragedy at 43-years-old. He traveled over the bridge to work five days a week from Pinellas County, driving a Chevrolet El Camino, and he told her he enjoyed seeing the Tampa Bay skyline every day. When Pryor learned, just hours after the accident, that her father's briefcase had been recovered, she said her heart sank.

"Dad said it was the most peaceful time of day for him in the morning and then again catching the sunset at night. He loved life."

Gwendolyn Calloway concluded the ceremony on an uplifting note, singing Stevie Wonder's famous song, "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life," for her brother and the 34 others whose memories would clearly not be forgotten.

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