In previous blogs, I have recounted my memories and stories about bridges in and around Sarasota, but this one is very different. 39 years ago on May 9th, 1980, tragedy struck our tropical paradise. The Sunshine Skyway bridge, which connects Sarasota and Bradenton to Tampa and St. Petersburg, was struck by a freighter. Six cars, a truck, and a bus plunged 150 feet into Tampa Bay, killing 35 people. Wesley MacIntire was in the truck when it fell onto the deck of the freighter and then into the water. He survived.
Those of us who lived here vividly remember that day. My wife Liz was a dental hygienist and her patient who had just arrived had simply heard on the radio that a boat hit the bridge. She remembers not being terribly upset, thinking it was probably a pleasure boat striking a piling and she hoped the people on the boat were OK. When she got home a turned on the local news, she was shocked. I was a building contractor at that time and my memories were equally shocked by this tragedy. The old Skyway Bridge was a familiar sight when I went fishing as a teenager and drove back and forth to St. Petersburg with my friends for a night on the town. I remembered that there was originally one two-lane span and the second span was added later to carry more traffic.
How could something this horrible happen? Capt. John Lerro was the harbor pilot that fateful day, trying to guide the freighter, the Summit Venture, a ship two football fields long, into the 58.4-mile channel that leads to the Port of Tampa. It is a long and treacherous channel thanks to the shallow depth of the bay and Florida’s unpredictable weather. The freighter was already dealing with fog when it was hit by 60 mph, tropical-storm force winds and blinding rain. The radar went down, too, when Lerro had to decide when to turn the Summit Venture between two of the Skyway’s main piers as the storm hid the ship’s bow from its pilot. On the bridge, Lerro considered his options. Visibility was terrible. There was also a ship leaving the bay approaching. Unable to track the approaching ship Pure Oil, the pilot judged it too risky to turn out of the shipping channel — what if he turned into the path of the oncoming ship? If he tried to bring the Summit Venture to a halt, the winds could cause the freighter to lose control and fling it into the bridge. The best course, Lerro decided, was to get the Summit Venture safely between the bridge’s pillars. But he misjudged the winds, unaware that a squall had changed the direction of the wind, pushing the freighter out of the channel and off-course. The vessel was also empty, riding high on the waves. A minute before impact, the skies cleared just enough for Lerro to see the Sunshine Skyway before him. Despite a flurry of last-second maneuvers, it was too late. At 7:33 a.m., the bow of the Summit Venture struck bridge pier 2S. The pier came down, and so did Interstate 275 above it during rush hour. Lerro radioed the Coast Guard for help. 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. Richard Hornbuckle's car rested where it skidded to a stop just 14 inches from the edge. Inimaginable.
The Florida Department of Transportation began construction on a safer Sunshine Skyway Bridge only days later. At a cost of $244 million, the bridge opened in 1987, making it a very rapid construction project considering the size of the structure. Since then, the bridge has been lauded for its design, which includes some very unique elements, most focused on the central span of the bridge. The cables descending from the two towers of this span are set in the middle of the bridge, with 40-foot roadways on each side. By placing the cables here, instead of on the edges of the bridge, the designers ensured that motorists would always have an unimpeded view of the bay. As a final touch, the cable cases were all painted bright yellow, representing rays of sunshine in the Sunshine State. More than 300 precast concrete segments were linked together with high-strength steel cables to form the roadway. Protecting the new bridge from ships was a big priority, so they installed large concrete islands, called 'dolphins', around each of the bridge's six piers to absorb unwanted impact.
Here are some other interesting facts about the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge:
- The dolphins around each pier were designed to withstand the impact of an 87,000-ton ship.
- Twenty-one steel cables support the roadway. The cables are sheathed in steel pipes, nine inches in diameter. The pipes were painted a brilliant yellow to reflect its location: the Sunshine State.
- Forty-foot-wide roadways run on either side of the cables. This design allows drivers to have unobstructed views of the water.
- Tampa is a busy shipping port. To ensure that navigation would not be blocked, engineers designed the bridge to soar 190 feet above the water.
The next time you drive across the Sunshine Skyway, perhaps you will recall some of it’s disastrous history…or hopefully you will just enjoy the stunning view. Or perhaps you will fish off of the old portion of the bridge that was saved and became The Skyway Fishing State Park. When the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge was built over Tampa Bay, connecting St. Petersburg with Sarasota, the old bridge was turned into the world's longest fishing pier. Either way, the bridge is yet another reason Bradenton, Sarasota and St. Petersburg are such a unique place to live or visit.