On Friday morning, May 9th, 1980, I was a student at Pine View School in Sarasota, Florida. School started at 8:15, and I think it was second period that I worked as a student aide in the school office. One of the secretaries got a phone call, and she went ashen. When she hung up, she came out and told us the news. “A giant ship hit the Skyway, and half of it collapsed. Cars, trucks, even a bus fell down into the water.”
This news blew my mind. Back then, there were no iPhones or Androids, so I couldn’t pull up the story. There was no Internet. Only word of mouth, and the local news, and we didn’t have a TV in the office.
Those of us who grew up here, or who’d lived here any length of time, were absolutely gobsmacked. There was no way that bridge could have fallen. I’d ridden across it dozens of times, and it was this giant steel colossus, nothing some stupid boat could have knocked down.
The ship was named “Summit Venture.” A sudden squall with winds up to 70 mph hit without warning, and the harbor pilot—the man whose job it was to get these ships safely from the mouth of Tampa Bay to the Port of Tampa—was a man named John Lerro. The radar was knocked out, and visibility was zero. When he realized he was off course, he did everything he could to avoid the collision.
It wasn’t enough.
Summit Venture hit one of the main piers supporting the center span of the big bridge. A big portion of the span fell 150 feet into the water. Cars, trucks, and a full Greyhound Bus all plummeted into Tampa Bay. One car stopped mere inches from falling, its driver barely stopping in time.
The tragedy was unimaginable to me back then, as it would be now. The Sunshine Skyway was a symbol of our area, a stalwart creation crossing wide, beautiful Tampa Bay. There were twin bridges 100 feet apart. The western bridge was the one that was destroyed.
The story was morbidly fascinating, as tragedies often are, and local media chewed over every detail for weeks and months. The bottom line is that 35 people fell 150 feet to a watery death—most died from the impact rather than drowning—and harbor pilot John Lerro’s life became a living hell from that point on.
Bill DeYoung’s extraordinary book “Skyway” captures the details the news stories missed. DeYoung takes us inside the harbor pilots’ fraternity, explaining how Lerro was not especially popular among his peers. Lerro was an outsider, the first pilot hired by a new State Commission, and several of his fellow pilots resented him.
DeYoung also uses court records, newspaper accounts, and personal interviews to reconstruct the seemingly innumerable hearings Lerro had to endure. He gives us a history of the Sunshine Skyway, and how much it meant to the area, both symbolically and as a way to save incredible amounts of time crossing Tampa Bay (going around it added at least another 50 miles to your journey).
As seems fitting, he also remembers some of the victims, describing their mornings before they met their fate, and he follows the tragic, tortured life of John Lerro, whose own guilt was worse than any invective people sent his way.
Thirty-six people lost their lives that day—35 in the accident, and John Lerro, who was exonerated of any wrongdoing, but whose remaining life was a miserable shambles.
The best thing about “Skyway” is Bill DeYoung’s skill as a writer. He was a journalist for decades, and he writes with a clear, factual economy, combined with the ability to tell a story beautifully without overwriting. He remains a detached observer, while getting us inside the minds of those involved.
“Skyway” is one of the most compelling, utterly engrossing non-fiction works I’ve read this year.
The original Sunshine Skyway has been completely demolished now, its approaches converted to fishing piers. Taking over its role is a giant, gleaming, concrete, cable suspension structure that The Travel Channel named one of the coolest bridges on earth. It is. I drove across the old Skyway once, and it was scary. Not just looking at the empty span 100 feet away, but because of the narrow lanes and slick metal gridwork. I’ve driven across the new Skyway over a thousand times and never worried.
That tragic, stormy day in May has faded into the mists of the forgotten for many Tampa Bay residents.
Bill DeYoung’s spectacular new book takes me back to that day and its aftermath. Whether or not you’re familiar with the story, “Skyway” will keep you spellbound, regardless of where you may live.
The Sunshine Skyway reaches across Tampa Bay connecting St Petersburg with Palmetto. “Skyway” reaches across time, connecting today with a tempestuous, horrible day over 33 years ago.
Most Highly Recommended
(nb: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)