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Remembering the Skyway Bridge Disaster: 'This Is Not Explainable'


Thirty-five years ago today, a cargo ship struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay. The bridge collapsed and sent cars and a Greyhound bus hurdling into the water below. Thirty-five people were killed. Robin Sussingham of member station WUSF in Tampa recalls the tragedy and tells us about the lessons learned.

ROBIN SUSSINGHAM, BYLINE: It was early in the morning and Bruce Atkins was assisting harbor pilot John Lerro as Lerro steered the 606-foot ship "Summit Venture" toward the Port of Tampa. Just as Lerro was closing in on a turn that would take him under the 150-foot-high Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a violent storm hit. Atkins remembers it coming out of nowhere.

BRUCE ATKINS: It became a blinding, driving rain, wind. And what we were not aware of at the time - the wind had turned in direction.

SUSSINGHAM: Bill DeYoung wrote a book about the disaster. Today he's standing on the remnant of the old Skyway, now a popular fishing pier.

BILL DEYOUNG: Those gusts, which probably exceeded 70 miles-an-hour, started blowing him sideways. As he's making the turn, a ray of sun starts to come through the clouds and he sees the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. And he realizes at that moment, I'm not where I'm supposed to be.

SUSSINGHAM: Lerro ordered the anchors dropped and the engines full astern, but he couldn't stop the drift of the 20,000-ton ship.

DEYOUNG: The ship just barely touched the second pier and the whole bridge crumbled. Thirteen-hundred-feet of bridge came down just like that. Lerro is 500 feet away, up in the wheelhouse of "Summit Venture," absolutely helpless.

SUSSINGHAM: Bruce Atkins was alongside Lerro in the wheelhouse watching the tragedy unfold.

ATKINS: A Greyhound bus plummeted 150 feet through steel and girders and even - you can hear that, cars are driving off.

SUSSINGHAM: Lerro put out the distress call, frantically trying to get the bridge closed to traffic.


JOHN LERRO: The bridge is down. Get all emergency equipment onto the Skyway Bridge. The Skyway Bridge is down. This is a major emergency situation. Stop the traffic on that Skyway Bridge.

SUSSINGHAM: Thirty-five people died. The ship's crew picked up the only survivor. Bill DeYoung says it's a miracle that the unprotected bridge lasted as long as it did in the busy shipping channel. And when work started on the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge two years later, there were a lot of changes.

DEYOUNG: One of the things they did, aside from raise the height, is they widened the channel underneath. And very specifically, these bumpers that they have out there - these concrete islands - this is all in the wake of "Summit Venture." Those are there to keep ships from hitting this bridge.

SUSSINGHAM: Boats ram into the bumpers regularly, but they're designed to take almost 30 million pounds of force, and the new bridge is built further away from the perilous turn so ships have more room to maneuver. Rock islands were placed around the center piers. Lerro was cleared of any wrongdoing but DeYoung says he was wracked by guilt until his death in 2002. Bruce Atkins had no direct role in the crash, but it caused him to give up his lifelong dream of becoming a harbor pilot. He says it was a life-changing event.

ATKINS: You stand there and you look at this and say, this is not explainable - this is not going to go away.

SUSSINGHAM: In Atkin's office is a big picture of the collapsed bridge. He says even now he's haunted whenever the weather takes a turn for the worse. For NPR News I'm Robin Sussingham in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robin Sussingham