Excerpt: Off the Sunshine Skyway, a long swim up

Published October 3 2013

In his new book, Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down (University Press of Florida), former Times correspondent Bill DeYoung revisits the horrific morning of May 9, 1980, when the freighter Summit Venture veered from the channel in a blinding storm and rammed the Sunshine Skyway. The subsequent collapse of the southbound span killed 35 people, including 26 people on a Greyhound bus. Wesley MacIntire, who was commuting to Manatee County in his blue Ford pickup, was the only person who survived the 150-foot fall into the bay. As he fell, he told DeYoung later, he had enough time to think there was no way he would survive this.

Then he noticed the green water pouring in through the space where his windshield had been, and bubbles rising in steady streams from the battered hood of his little truck, which seemed to be parked at a curious angle. The headlights were still on.

He was at the bottom of the shipping channel, the truck's rear end planted in the silt 40 feet beneath the surface of Tampa Bay.

His little truck's fall had been broken by the port bow of the Summit Venture.

Frantically, MacIntire forced open the top part of the damaged driver's side door until he'd made enough room to wiggle through. The water stung and the escape route was tight ...

Filling his lungs one last time, MacIntire pushed his 220-pound frame out of the truck and kicked for the surface. He could see a vague light, but he didn't know if he could make it all the way through the blackness.

By the time he broke through — "like a bullet coming out of the water," he later described it — he'd swallowed a stomachful of seawater and the first thing he did was vomit. Blood was streaming down his face from the gash in his forehead. His legs ached ...

He tried to mute the sound of his pounding heart to listen for splashes. Or screams ... But there were no sounds. I'm the only fool who went in the water, he thought.