Skyway: When the bridge came down 

Local author examines Florida's Sunshine Skyway disaster in a new light


Journalist Bill DeYoung has been a newspaper man for over 30 years. He's covered community theater, big acts and club bands, most recently here at Connect.

He's interviewed more famous musicians than he can count and wrote the liner notes for Cat Stevens' four-CD box set.

He knows more about the Beatles than a British go-go girl.

His first book has nothing to do with any of that.

A Florida native, DeYoung has spent the last three years researching and writing Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down, out this week by University Press of Florida. The book launch and signing is this Tuesday, Sept. 24 at the Ships of the Sea Museum.

Skyway follows the events of May, 9, 1980, when a 600-foot freighter named the Summit Venture struck the second span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on Florida's Gulf Coast, killing 35 people and horrifying the nation with images of crumpled asphalt and broken steel.

Not DeYoung's usual beat, to say the least.

"Why this story? I'm from St. Petersburg, and the Skyway Bridge was a big part of life," he says, using his hands to mimic the steep ascent and sudden drop he remembers as a kid. "There it's pelicans, sunsets and the Skyway."

DeYoung was 21 when the bridge came down, and with it, the blind faith that Florida's most impressive structure could stand up to anything.

"Like everyone else, I was gobsmacked. Stunned that anything like this could happen, that the bridge was vulnerable. It was there, it had always been there," he recalls. "Afterwards, I would read these anniversary stories about it, and it seemed incomplete.

"I kept wondering, who were these people? What happened to them afterwards? As a journalist, that's how it works. Your curiosity gets piqued about something. I guess you could say I became obsessed."

A well-paced narrative that parses history from tragedy, Skyway begins with the sunny productive optimism of 1950s Florida, defining the "build it and they will come" strategy of economic development. The first 15-mile, two-lane Skyway opened in 1954 to great fanfare; its parallel sister span split the traffic load in 1971.

That fateful May morning started out as usual, with folks crossing from St. Pete and Bradenton and vice versa, when a storm roiled up out of the bay. Rain and wind roared. Drivers couldn't see the taillights in front of them. A few cars had slowed to a crawl when suddenly, the road gave out beneath them.

What happened next is stomach wrenching. With no iPhone videos and few first-person accounts to refer to, DeYoung recreates with words the sickening cinematic loop of seven cars and a Greyhound bus falling 150 feet and plunking into the water, one after another.

Skyway pays homage to those who died but delves most deeply into the life of the lone survivor, Wes MacIntire, whose truck sailed off the span and landed him on the bottom of the bay. MacIntire was rescued, ironically, by the Chinese crew of the ship that caused the accident in the first place.

Mostly, however, Skyway is about the one man unfortunate enough to be at the helm of the Summit Venture when the weather fell apart. Most ports require local pilots to board large ships and navigate them into the harbor, and pilot John Lerro was on duty that day. Relying on transcripts, interviews and tactical research, DeYoung masterfully distills those few tremendous moments when Lerro miscalculated the Summit Venture's position in the midst of that sudden, violent squall.

After the catastrophe, Lerro was vilified in the media and accused of alcoholism and incompetence, a lasting misconception debunked thoroughly in Skyway. As the first harbor pilot hired by the state instead of the insular Board of Pilot Commissioners, his record was no worse than any of his colleagues, but the Board and the D.A. didn't hesitate to make an example of him.

Though his friends and family were reluctant to speak with DeYoung, a few finally came around to share stories about a kind, intelligent, culturally-adept man who exercised the best judgment he could under the circumstances, or what the author calls "a confluence of bad mojo."

"He certainly wasn't the greatest pilot, but he certainly wasn't incompetent. He had 30 seconds to make a major decision with the sky falling in all around him," says DeYoung, shaking his head. "I would have done exactly the same thing."

Though the tragedy was eventually ruled "an act of God," there was little redemption for the disgraced harbor pilot. His life destroyed, Lerro found work teaching at a maritime college and as a counselor; he eventually died of complications from multiple sclerosis.

Skyway may be Lerro's long due vindication, but it also introduces a more complex view of the catastrophe. DeYoung also includes materials from Dept. of Transportation whistleblower and civil engineer Arthur Goodale, who questioned the cheaper materials used on the Skyway's second span. There's also the fact that the 800-foot hole for the ships to pass through had no buffers — making the bridge itself "an accident waiting to happen."

"It doesn't matter whether the bridge is made out of solid gold or bad concrete," says DeYoung. "The bigger issue is why weren't the pylons themselves ever protected with this constant ship traffic?"

On the timeline between the Iran Hostage Crisis and the eruption of Mount St. Helens, the Sunshine Skyway calamity of 1980 might have disappeared into provincial lore if not for DeYoung's efforts.

"It was passing into legend, and I still had many more questions. I didn't know where this story was going to go when I started it but it felt important," says the author. "What I learned was that it's not a book about Florida history, and it's most certainly not a book about bridge safety.

"This is about people and a particular kind of endurance. And I think there are lessons there for everybody."

Skyway Launch and Booksigning

When: 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 24

Where: Ships of the Sea Museum, 41 MLK Blvd.

Info: 912/232-1511 or shipsofthesea.org


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About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

More by Jessica Leigh Lebos


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Connect Today 10.23.2016

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