Remembering the terror of the Skyway Bridge Disaster
May marks the 39th anniversary of when part of the original Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapsed into Tampa Bay after being struck by a freighter during a storm, sending seven vehicles and a Greyhound bus into the water and killing 35 people.
Audio recordings of the U.S. Coast Guard transmissions following the initial distress call capture the terror of that day.
At 7:33 a.m. on May 9, 1980, the 606-foot Summit Venture crashed into the western span of the bridge during a blinding storm.
A mayday call from the pilot of the Summit Venture reporting the collapse can be heard in— audio recordings from the marine VHF radio emergency frequency and radar traffic that followed that day.
The pilot, John Lerro, came on the frequency, “Mayday, mayday, mayday, Coast Guard. Mayday, mayday, mayday.”
“Get all emergency equipment out to the Skyway Bridge. A vessel just hit the Skyway Bridge. The Skyway Bridge is down,” the pilot was heard shouting. “Get all emergency equipment out to the Skyway Bridge. The Skyway Bridge is down. This is a mayday.”
Here is a look back through the Herald archives on the Sunshine Skyway tragedy.
— JESSICA DE LEON
THE MAN RESPONSIBLE
Published Dec. 20, 1982
Around town, people whisper behind John Lerro’s back. That’s the freighter pilot who hit the Skyway Bridge. That’s the guy who’s responsible for 35 deaths. That was 12 years ago, and yet the talk about him continues here, the ghosts live on, and with merciless frequency Lerro privately relives the fateful morning in which a vicious storm descended upon him with no warning.
His life since has been a series of painful episodes. He lost his wife, his career as a pilot, his volunteer counseling job and his health. Only 18 months after the collision, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which makes his left side uncoordinated and gnaws away at his memory.
Yet for all the pain, Lerro, 50, is emerging from dark shadows. At a recent hearing on the killer tornadoes that whirled into Pinellas County Oct. 3, Lerro stood on shaky legs to urge the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council to push for modernization of the area’s weather radar.
“How many people have to die before we get a decent radar system?” he asked.
And now, he hopes for wider exposure. He is searching for someone to write a book on the accident with one purpose in mind: Tell the world that those who whisper are wrong, that he was not responsible for killing the 35. Steve Yerrid, a prominent Tampa lawyer who successfully defended Lerro against negligence charges a decade ago, hopes Lerro finds a larger audience. “As if he hasn’t had enough bad breaks, now the terrible epitaph: The true story of the accident remains untold.”
It’s a story that’s hard to believe. It’s a story, though, that people in South Florida may put some faith in because they, too, know firsthand that a person’s control over nature is tenuous.
Lerro himself had a hard time believing that.
“If you hit a bridge, you screwed up,” he said on a recent day inside his duplex north of Tampa, about 30 miles north of the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge. “There were mitigating circumstances. So I screwed up in a storm with many unknowns.”
The 4 1/2-mile bridge and causeway system links St. Petersburg to Manatee County near Bradenton. He shifted uneasily on his couch as he talked. Multiple sclerosis bends his limbs in sharp, unnatural angles. His dark brown hair is unruly, his sideburns long. He wears slacks and white T-shirts that highlight a resemblance to the rock star Bruce Springsteen.
On May 9, 1980, Lerro steered the 608-foot Summit Venture through Tampa Bay’s difficult, winding, 40-mile shipping channel up to the “800-foot hole” between the bridge’s concrete columns. He was a deputy harbor pilot, a veteran who had worked on the Panama Canal and out of South Florida ports as a merchant mariner in the late 1960s and 1970s.
In Tampa Bay, he was a middle-of-the-road journeyman, judging by his average number of safety infractions. The Summit Venture, riding high in the water and thus more vulnerable to the wind, was entering the port for a load of phosphate when a sudden, blinding squall engulfed it.
The time was 7:30 a.m. Rain flew horizontally. Prevailing wind shifted instantly in the storm from southwest to northwest. Fog fell like a curtain. Lerro remembers.
In his living room, with Tchaikovsky’s melodic Swan Lake playing on the radio, he closed his eyes and, in a monotone, said he saw this: “The rain, the radar screen full of blank, full of green clutter, looking out the window, seeing just rain, seeing my own image reflected instead of seeing out. The rain, the frigging rain.”
His voice dropped to a whisper: “Then the bridge. Just a few feet away.” At 7:34 a.m., the boat hit the steel structure, knocking down a 1,400-foot chunk of road, sending six cars, a pickup truck and a Greyhound bus flying through the air and crashing into the water 15 stories below.
Lerro saw it all. Only one person who fell into the water survived. The tragedy was international news. Everyone wanted to talk with Lerro. Walter Cronkite called. Reporters from around the world tried to find him.
Lerro said nothing, on the advice of Yerrid, the lawyer. Community sentiment had turned against him. No one believed his story.
“There were rumors that they were drunks, rowdies, undisciplined characters,” said John Eastman, a former Tampa Bay TV talk show host who wrote a screenplay about the accident.
The rumors were wrong. Fellow pilots noted that his passions were not alcohol or partying, but ballet, classical music and the art of piloting. Lerro, a Roman Catholic raised in the Bronx, had studied to be a ballet dancer but decided on a career at sea because it was “romantic, exciting.”
He sees parallels in the two passions of his life: “All ships move gracefully, slowly. A ballet dancer moves gracefully, always with follow-through motion. They have the same effect on me.”
Several weeks after the collision, the National Transportation Safety Board voted 3-2 that Lerro was partially to blame. They said that while the National Weather Service gave him no warning of the storm, he could have done a few things differently, such as anchoring earlier. State regulators suspended his license. Yerrid and Lerro, though, won it back.
First, a state panel of pilot commissioners reluctantly cleared him of negligence. Then a hearing administrator agreed.
Lerro began piloting again in Tampa Bay, but he found it difficult to climb ladders and move around the ship. He didn’t know it then, but it was the first sign of multiple sclerosis. When he received the diagnosis, Lerro’s depression deepened. After winning a fight, he had lost.
“Half of my battle was winning him over to the human spirit of survival,” Yerrid said. “Say you left the office tonight and a kid darted in front of you. You hit him. You’ve got two roads to choose, neither of them easy. I had to get him to choose that there was a possibility he wasn’t at fault. After the numbness and sickness, he became tremendously depressed. After all, he had watched people plummet to their deaths.”
Slowly, sporadically, Lerro took command of his life. He taught for a semester at his alma mater, New York’s Maritime College. He spent hundreds of hours with two writers who put together a screenplay called An Act of God for a movie that never made it to production. He studied Buddhism and Hinduism. He earned a master’s in counseling at the University of South Florida in Tampa. And he volunteered at the Hillsborough County Crisis Center, answering calls from rape victims and people contemplating suicide.
But that experience soured for him, too. Last year, he was told they didn’t want him as a volunteer anymore. He said it was a dispute over his style. When a victim cursed, he cursed, too.
Crisis center administrators wouldn’t talk about Lerro. Like the L’il Abner character Joe Btfsplk, who is always trailed by a black cloud, Lerro seems married to misfortune.
During a recent visit, he talked for hours about a girlfriend who had dumped him several months earlier. He said he tried to control her. She said nothing for this story, not returning messages.
“The break-up has called in all the bogeymen from the past,” Lerro said. “I’m looking inward to see all the monsters inside me.” He excused himself to take a shower, a 30-minute ordeal as a result of his difficulty of movement.
His duplex shows a cultured side: Persian rugs, two statues of green, shin-high Vietnamese Foo dogs, framed lithographs of sailboats, watercolors of street scenes in Italy, a shelf of books on art, a rack of records of Mozart and Vivaldi. On his coffee table rests a picture book, LIFE Laughs Last.
Lerro reappeared and insisted on driving to lunch in his 1988 Toyota Camry. He drove with his good arm, the right, and the car veered from shoulder to center line, back and forth. As it did, he talked about piloting.
“I loved it like I love a woman. I wasn’t afraid of it. A few times, I was a hero of a situation,” he said, jerking the steering wheel to the right to keep the car in its lane. “Once, the captain had our ship on converging course with another ship. I took over at night, and they were ready to hit. I’m on the ship to the left, he’s on the ship to the right; they were so close anything one ship did could hit the other ship. I got on radio, channel 12, remembered the name of the other vessel, Cygnus, and told that captain, ‘Come hard port, come hard port now.’ The Greek captain said, ‘Yes, Mr. Pilot.’ Then I came hard starboard right around the stern. He disappeared under my bow, and we danced around each other.”
Lerro parked the Camry. It took him more than five minutes to walk 20 feet to the table at Gus’s, an Italian restaurant. The waitress already had a glass of orange soda at his seat. Over pan pizza, he said he had recently thought about returning to the Catholic Church in his quest for understanding. He called a priest for an appointment, but when the priest couldn’t see him for a week, Lerro decided he would find solace elsewhere. That pains him.
“I think I am going to die not knowing the answers. I look and I say to somebody who knows the answers like my son, who’s a Jehovah’s Witness, ‘You’re lucky.’ You’ve found an answer that works for you. I don’t know any answers.”
Maybe, he said, a book on his life and the accident will help him reach some conclusions. Maybe it won’t. After all, can a telling of his story bring redemption? Absolution? Even peace? Lerro doesn’t know.
All he knows is that he’s out of his shadows now, exposed with his ghosts.
“It’s time after 12 years to get back into life and be happy when I can,” he said. “There is a reason why I’m here on earth. It wasn’t to kill people.”
Published May 1, 1987
The new $240 million Sunshine Skyway bridge opened Thursday with a procession of cars, 2,000 yellow balloons and a memorial bouquet of 35 white carnations, one for each traveler who perished in the 1980 disaster.
The 4.1-mile bridge arches over Tampa Bay 1,000 feet east of the 33-year-old twin-span structure crippled on May 9, 1980, when the freighter Summit Venture rammed it, collapsing a 1,400- foot section of the southbound roadway. On that stormy morning, 35 motorists plunged 150 feet to their deaths. Nearly seven years later, a gaping hole in the old bridge’s midsection remains a haunting reminder to motorists, sailors and, especially, Wesley MacIntire, the sole survivor of the tragedy.
Thursday, MacIntire was the last person to cross the old remaining northbound span, where he silently dropped the white carnations 15 stories into the water. Sobbing, the 63-year-old trucker hugged his wife, Betty, and bowed his head over the steering wheel. “Thank you, God,’ he said, wiping tears from his eyes. “I didn’t think I could do it. I’ll never forget.”
Traffic on the old bridge stopped for the last time at 10 a.m while maintenance crews switched signs to direct motorists to the new high-tech span. Anyone wanting to cross between Bradenton and St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast had to make a 40- mile detour until the new span opened at 2:20 p.m. Sam and Vivian Saporito figured they made history.
They were the first to cross the old bridge in 1954. They did it again Thursday.
“It was more exciting today than it was in 1954,” Saporito said. “We didn’t have as much television at that time and they didn’t have all these airplanes flying around.”
Published Feb. 7, 1987
It was the stuff of nightmares. One moment, Wesley MacIntire was driving through blinding rain on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Then, nothing. The bridge was gone, and he was driving on nothing. “I remember seeing a ship and I couldn’t figure it out,” MacIntire recalled this week. “I was supposed to be 150 feet over the ship, and here it was in front of me. The bridge was going down, and I was driving into the side of a ship.”
Today, nearly seven years later, a spectacular new bridge will be dedicated. The $249.4 million span, which cuts across Tampa Bay to link St. Petersburg with Manatee County near Bradenton, is higher, wider and safer than its predecessor, engineers say. That predecessor was wrecked May 9, 1980, when a freighter, lost in the vicious storm, broadsided the southbound span of the twin bridge and knocked down a 1,260-foot section of roadway.
It was the morning rush hour. A Greyhound bus, seven cars and MacIntire’s 1974 blue Ford pickup hurtled into the stormy abyss. Thirty-five people died; MacIntire was the only survivor.
MacIntire, now 63, will be at the dedication today, but in some ways, he said, it will not change anything. He remains haunted by those few moments when he was driving on nothing but rain and wind.
“My foot was all black and blue afterwards, and they said it was from stomping on the brakes,” said MacIntire, who lives in nearby Gulfport. “I had brand new tires and everything, and I couldn’t stop. The problem was, I wasn’t driving on anything.”
After hitting the ship, MacIntire’s truck sank in 40 feet of water. Somehow, he made it to the surface, blood streaming from his head. Afterward, he suffered from psychological problems.
Equally haunted is John Lerro, the harbor pilot who was guiding the 608-foot Summit Venture into Tampa harbor at 7:34 a.m. that day. In the ensuing years, Lerro lost his career, marriage and health. He has not lost his harrowing memories.
“I saw the concrete crumble,” Lerro said. “I remember utter horror, just mouth-dropping horror. I kept trying to gather my thoughts and then losing them. “The only thought I remember was . . . telling the captain to get all his men out on deck to look for survivors, because when I looked to the left, I saw no bridge where there used to be one.’ “
Although MacIntire, Lerro and others involved in the disaster say they will never get it fully behind them, state officials will do their best today to help the general public look ahead rather than backward. Among those scheduled to attend the festivities are U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and Gov. Bob Martinez. There will be fireworks, water shows and a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The only thing missing will be a drive along the bridge. It’s not open yet. Construction problems and delays. They have them on this side of the state, too. Originally scheduled for completion in January 1985, the bridge will finally open next month. Probably.
Only a final coat of paint and a few other details remain, engineers say. In their defense, they point to the complexity of the job.
“This is absolute, state-of-the-art technology,” said Christopher Reseigh, project manager for a consulting firm monitoring construction. “There just isn’t anything newer or harder or more satisfying for an engineer.” The bridge, financed by federal and state funds and revenue bonds, is 4.14 miles long. Most of it was constructed on pilings, much like conventional causeway-bridges in South Florida, but a crucial, one-half mile section is far from conventional. For that section, which spans the busy shipping channel, engineers used a “cable-stay” system. This means that the cables supporting the roadway are anchored in towering twin pylons, rather than on shore as in a common suspension bridge.
The bridge’s unique construction gives the span a sleek, modern appearance, and the 84 gold-painted cables fan out from those huge pylons like harp strings in the Land of Giants.
There is a problem, though: When the bridge opens, a $39 million protection system will still be two years from completion. That system uses large, circular, concrete barriers to guard the pylons and nearby support pilings. Other features of the protection system include man-made islands around the pylons and a new navigational system for ships.
Tony Garcia, bridge project manager for the state Department of Transportation, said he has no reservations about safety. The new bridge, using modern technology and materials, already is safer than the old, he said. It also is 25 feet higher, and its pylons form a shipping channel that is 400 feet wider — an increase of 50 percent.
In addition, Garcia said, the old bridge will remain in place as a buffer against accident until the new bridge’s safety system is complete. If the old bridge had a protection system like the one designed for the new, it still would be standing, Garcia said.
The Summit Venture would have grazed a barrier and probably gone on its way. There would be no need for a dedication today, 35 people would not have plunged to a horrible death, and John Lerro, the harbor pilot, would probably be a very different person than he is now.
After enduring weeks of media attacks and a lengthy state investigation, Lerro was declared innocent of negligence. A federal judge and the Coast Guard, however, said his navigational decisions contributed to the disaster. Others suggested that the old bridge’s design and construction, combined with weather conditions and ship traffic in the channel, created an accident waiting to happen. Lerro eventually returned to piloting, but he retired after developing multiple sclerosis. He went back to sea for a time, and then taught at the University of New York’s Maritime College.
Through it all, Lerro wrestled with guilt and depression. His marriage disintegrated, and he said he contemplated suicide. Now, he is back in Tampa, taking graduate courses in counseling. He wants to work for a suicide-prevention hot line. After all this time, he has not been able to determine — within himself — how much responsibility he had for the accident.
He doubts that he ever will. He is only 44 years old.
“If you hit a stationary object with a moving object, there’s a presumption of guilt,” said Lerro. “I was on the moving object. The bridge didn’t jump out and hit me. “But there were so many mitigating circumstances,” he said. “There was a hellacious storm. We couldn’t see a thing. There was an outbound ship I had to watch out for. My ship was so light, it was like a sailboat, a giant steel, empty sailboat . . . “I soul-searched. Man, I soul-searched. The funny thing is, there’s just no clear-cut answers. That’s about the only thing I learned.”
Lerro does not plan to attend today’s ceremony. He feels it would not be appropriate.