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The Sunshine Skyway Bridge Disaster

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Uploaded on Aug 15, 2007

They probably never met, Chip Callaway and Gerta Hedquist. Never nodded or smiled or even made eye contact. They had, after all, no mutual friends, no shared interests. He was 20, an exceptional college student, on the school tennis team, standing on the brink of his life. She was 92, stiffening with advanced arthritis, planning another trip to her native Sweden, undoubtedly the last given her growing physical limitations. They had nothing in common at all.

Except, as they settled into their Greyhound bus seats, heading south under gray and threatening skies, they were about to die together.

At 7:25 a.m. on May 9, 1980, with the Greyhound approaching Pinellas Point a few miles from the north end of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, Capt. John Lerro tensed at the helm of the freighter Summit Venture, a ship as long as two football fields. Lerro, 37, an experienced harbor pilot from Tampa, shouldered the responsibility of guiding the Summit Venture from the Gulf of Mexico 58.4 miles up Tampa Bay to the Port of Tampa. It is one of the longest shipping channels in the world, and one of the most treacherous, given the shallow waters of the bay and the ambush style of Florida weather. With the ship's belly empty of cargo and her tanks nearly empty of ballast, she rode high in the water. She ran through intermittent fog and rain along the first 19 miles of her journey. Then southwest winds exploded to tropical-storm force. Rain sheeted at rates exceeding 7 inches an hour. Visibility plunged to near zero, and shipboard radar failed. It couldn't have happened at a worse point. Lerro faced the most critical course change of the run, a 13-degree turn that would take him between the two main piers of the Skyway bridge. It was at almost this exact spot that the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn had been rammed four months earlier by the tanker Capricorn. The Blackthorn sank. Twenty-three men died. Lerro approached the critical bend on a ship weighing nearly 20,000 tons battered by winds of nearly 60 mph.

And he approached it blind.

Anthony Gattus didn't like what he saw at all. "It was a lousy day to start with," Gattus recalled. "It started raining hard 2 or 3 miles before we got to the Skyway. It got really dark. I don't like rain and cold and darkness. Didn't then. Don't now." Gattus, now 81, was a passenger in a yellow Buick headed south with three other men to ferry cars back for sale in Pinellas County. Richard Hornbuckle, the owner of the Buick, was behind the wheel. Jim Crispin sat beside Hornbuckle in the front seat. Kenneth Holmes sat beside Gattus in back. "Hornbuckle was a real good driver," Gattus said. "I always felt safe with him. When the rain started hard, he slowed way down. Twenty. Don't think he could have been going faster than 20 mph. "I remember a blue pickup passed us. "I remember a bus passed us."

On the water below, Lerro considered his options. Visibility was so bad he could no longer see the bow of his ship. He judged it too risky to turn the Summit Venture out of the shipping channel to the north to anchor and ride out the storm because the outbound Pure Oil had been approaching. Without radar or visibility to locate the tanker, Lerro feared he might ram her if he steered across her path. If he tried to stop, or if he turned south out of the channel, the winds could usurp control of the ship and hurl him into the bridge. Thinking the wind was still from the southwest, his right, Lerro judged it would push the Summit Venture safely through the main spans of the Skyway. He made the decision to proceed. Lerro didn't know the squall had forced the wind around to the west-northwest, his left. Instead of keeping him in the channel, it pushed his high-riding vessel off course. At 7:32, the weather cleared marginally. Lerro saw part of the bridge superstructure directly ahead. With heartstopping clarity, he realized he was no longer in the shipping channel. He ordered a series of maneuvers, including emergency reversal of the engines and the deployment of the anchors. But it was too late. At 7:33, the bow of the Summit Venture collided with bridge pier 2S. The pier toppled, taking the roadway with it. --- Legend813

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