Saturday, May 9, 2015

Fate's Fickle Finger

35 years ago this morning it was foggy in my corner of the world. I was nine years old, Jimmy Carter was president, and I remember that morning's fog like it was yesterday. I remember standing with the other kids in our uniforms, around the courtyard of the Canterbury School of Florida, ready to hear the announcements be read to us in person rather than over an intercom, just like we did every other morning.

In the moments before the announcements were to be read, one of the kids on the opposite side of the courtyard said something out loud: "The Skyway fell." Murmurs immediately rippled among us and I recall someone else, also on the opposite side, saying: "It got hit by a boat."

Colonel Adam walked up behind where I was standing. He was a third-grade teacher who said we should only refer to him as Mister Adam, but we young'uns always went with "colonel" because he had previously served in the U.S. Army and fought the Nazis both in Europe and North Africa. On that morning he used his trademark calm voice, one that was steady and reassuring no matter what he said, to confirm that the Skyway had in fact been taken down by a ship.

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Technically, the ill-fated structure was known as the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. So too is the one that replaced it seven years after the tragedy that unfolded on the morning of May 9, 1980. But whether talking about the old one or the new one, locals have always referred to the bridge spanning the mouth of Tampa Bay simply as "the Skyway."

In both its incarnations, the Skyway has always been the Golden Gate Bridge of the Eastern United States. Thought not as famous as its Californian rival and not blessed with that instantly recognizable orange hue, it is wildly impressive in its own right -- and again, I am talking about both the original Skyway and the successor Skyway, because we locals have an inexplicable habit of talking about them as if they were a single entity.

The original was opened on September 6, 1954 and consisted of two lanes, one southbound and one northbound. A steel cantilever bridge, its passage across the mouth of Tampa Bay required it to cross more than four miles of open water, compared to four-fifths of a mile for the Golden Gate Bridge. And whereas the Golden Gate stretches between cliffs so that drivers don't climb to the altitude at which they cross the water, both the original and present Skyway ascend to their dizzying heights after drivers are already on them and above the water. This makes a drive across the Skyway more tingly than a drive across the Golden Gate.

To relieve traffic and increase volume, a second bridge right next to the first was opened in 1971, with northbound traffic traveling across the first and southbound across the second. Because they looked identical, they were known jointly as "the Skyway" with the only differentiation being between "first span" and "second span." At their apex, both had a sort of steel cage through which cars drove, while the driving surface itself ceased being concrete and became a steel grid. If you were walking across it, you could look down and see right through the grid to the shark-infested water far below. These spans towered more than 150 feet above the water, and 51 people are confirmed to have committed suicide by driving to their apexes, parking their cars, and leaping off the edge.

The current Skyway consists of a single span with two lanes travelling in each direction. It is even higher than the original, at more than 180 feet, and in the 28 years since it opened, at least 148 people have ended their lives by leaping.

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35 years ago this morning, Captain John Lerro was at the helm of the MV Summit Venture, a 580-foot-long phosphate freighter that was built in Japan and sailing under the flag of Liberia. She had no cargo and little ballast, and thus was riding high in the water. The 37-year-old Lerro was tasked with guiding her more than 58 miles up the channel of Tampa Bay from the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Tampa.

Navigating the channel from the gulf required executing a 13-degree turn to take a ship between the Skyway's two main piers and under its lofty peak. In good weather this was easily manageable, if not necessarily easy, but on the morning in question, the weather turned wicked without notice.

As the Summit Venture approached the bridge, southwest winds suddenly started blowing at tropical storm force; rain started falling at a rate faster than 7 inches per hour, effectively reducing visibility to zero; and on top of that, the ship's radar failed.

Lerro had little time to decide how he should proceed. He knew that a tanker called Pure Oil was exiting the bay from the other side of the bridge, and was afraid that turning the Summit Venture might put her in its path and cause a collision... He also feared that bringing her to a stop or turning her out of the channel would cause the winds to take control and push her into the bridge... And, he was unaware that the winds had shifted from the southwest (from which they were likely to push the ship safely under the bridge between its main piers) to the west-northwest... Thus, he opted to proceed, not knowing that the shift in winds had blown his vessel out of the channel.

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At 7:32 in the morning, several minutes after Lerro made that decision, the visibility somewhat cleared and he saw that the Skyway's piers were directly in front of his ship. According to the St. Petersburg Times he promptly "ordered a series of maneuvers, including emergency reversal of the engines and the deployment of the anchors." Tragically, it was too late. At 7:33 the Summit Venture crashed into Pier 2S, which buckled, then broke; and with its breaking, the bridge way above toppled and fell into the sea.

Lerro immediately got on the radio and sent out a Mayday call that can be heard here. He pleaded: "Get emergency -- all the emergency equipment out to the Skyway bridge. Vessel has just hit the Skyway bridge. The Skyway bridge is down!... Stop the traffic on that Skyway bridge!"

15 stories overhead, Hell broke loose for almost three dozen human beings. As they drove or were driven up toward the Skyway's apex, the fog and rain robbed their visibility and prevented them from seeing that the apex was no longer there, so they drove right off and plummeted into oblivion.

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A Greyhound bus carried 26 people to their deaths. At opposite ends of its passenger list were 19-year-old Chip Callaway and 92-year-old Gerta Hedquist.

Nine other people dropped to their deaths in a 1980 Chevy Citation, 1979 Chevy Nova, 1980 Ford Grenada, 1976 El Camino, 1979 VW Scirocco, and a black-and-yellow Ford sedan of unspecified model.

The bodies of all 35 people were eventually retrieved from the water, some with horrified looks frozen on their faces. Autopsies revealed that 28 of them died of blunt force trauma from striking the water and the other seven died of drowning.

In addition to the 35 people who perished, a single individual, Wesley MacIntyre, managed to survive the fall after his 1974 Ford Courier bounced off the Summit Venture and landed in the bay.

My Great Uncle Tom was supposed to be driving across the Skyway that morning on his way to a fishing trip with friends. Blessedly, the trip was cancelled.

One indelible image of the tragedy is from after the storm passed and the fog lifted. It shows wreckage from the bridge sitting on the bow of the Summit Venture beneath what remained of the superstructure:

However, the most indelible images were taken up on the remaining superstructure and showed Richard Hornbuckle's 1976 Buick Skylark, which had skidded to a stop just 14 inches short of going over. Looking up rather than just looking straight ahead, Hornbuckle had noticed that the steel cage did not continue like it should have. Rapidly realizing what that must mean, he slammed on his breaks and saved himself and his three passengers from near-certain death:

As you can tell, the piece of the superstructure on which his car came to a rest was hanging down at an angle, and it was part of the steel grid mentioned earlier. One of the passengers, Anthony Gattus, recalls that after he and his friends got out, "We were on a sharp incline... I stuck my fingers through the grating and began to crawl away... Hornbuckle was still by the car. I yelled at him, 'What are you still doing there?' He said he was going back for his golf clubs."

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May 9, 1980 was a singularly tragic day, yet it turned out that it was only the first volley in a very tragic month for the United States. Nine days later, in almost the furthest opposite corner of the Lower 48, Mount St. Helens erupted with the force of five atomic bombs. When she blew, St. Helens killed 57 people and laid hundreds of square miles of forest to waste.

Eventually both tragedies were chalked up as the work of deity, even though the Skyway disaster involved a man-made and man-piloted vessel crashing into a man-made bridge. Because of the rapidly changing environmental conditions mentioned above, Captain Lerro was found innocent of wrongdoing when both a Coast Guard investigation and Florida grand jury declared the incident an "act of God."

In the end, the wake from each tragedy revealed the resilience that is embedded in both human nature and earthly nature. The rapid greening and reinhabitation of St. Helens testifies to the latter. The opening of the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1987, just west of the old one and some 30 feet higher, testifies to the latter. Meanwhile, the old Skyway's first span and much its second span were razed; and the remaining section of its second span now lives on as a popular fishing pier from which anglers regularly catch grouper, sea bass, snapper, and several species of shark. There is a positive story somewhere in there, growing from the compost that was created by negative occurrences.

I've said this before about many things, and today, on the 35th anniversary of the Skyway's collapse, I am saying it about that collapse: Never Forget.

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