After more than a year of trying, Bill DeYoung has won permission to erect a memorial for the 35 people who perished in the Sunshine Skyway bridge disaster more than three decades ago.
That hurdle overcome, DeYoung, a St. Petersburg native and author of a book about the accident that sent a Greyhound bus, six cars and a pickup plummeting into Tampa Bay one stormy May morning in 1980, now must raise money to build and maintain the proposed monument. It's a task he embraces.
"I think people should remember. They should never forget this. It is part of our shared history," said DeYoung, who was 21 at the time.
"For anybody who lived through those days, the skyway was part of bay life,'' he said. "It was always scary and you always wondered what would happen if you went over the side. These people didn't drive off the rail, off the side. They plunged right through the middle, with no warning. I can't imagine anything more horrific."
DeYoung may have lined up his first big donor for his project, prominent Tampa lawyer Steve Yerrid.
"I'm very supportive of it. I think I can help him politically and financially," said Yerrid, known for contributing to various causes and whose firm was a major contributor to Charlie Crist's campaign for governor.
Yerrid also successfully represented John Lerro, the harbor pilot who was guiding the freighter Summit Venture to the Port of Tampa when it struck a support column and the center section of the bridge's southbound span collapsed. Yerrid's "act of God" defense got Lerro exonerated for negligence.
"Thirty-five people died that day," Yerrid said. "It is something that is burned in the minds of a lot of people. Also, John lost his soul that day, too. I would be honored to help with the financial end."
DeYoung hopes to have a memorial ready for dedication May 9, the 35th anniversary of the disaster. He says he has filed paperwork for a nonprofit, to be called the Skyway Memorial Project, that will accept funds for the estimated $10,000 effort. He is considering various ways to raise the money.
"I have friends who are grant writers. I might be looking at crowd funding. I'm talking to people. I have no idea how this is going to happen, but it's going to happen," said DeYoung, 56, a former journalist and author of the book Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down.
"With regard to the memorial, it occurred to me that there was nothing in St. Petersburg. And once the book was starting to happen, lots of people I talked to said, 'Is there a memorial, is there a marker?' '' said DeYoung, public relations manager for the Mahaffey Theater. "I thought of the victims' families. I thought of their loved ones. For a lot of us, this was an extremely tragic event. I looked around and thought, somebody needs to do something."
The 2014 Florida Legislature approved the memorial in a bill allowing the Department of Transportation to permit "a suitable marker" by a private entity at the rest area north of the bridge. The bill stipulates that the memorial must be approved by the department and that whoever erects it must be responsible "for all costs … its installation and maintenance."
DeYoung and his group would also have to provide an annual renewable bond, an irrevocable letter of credit or another form of security to cover the cost to remove or relocate the marker, if that becomes necessary.
On a blustery afternoon recently, DeYoung joined Chris Gregory, a Department of Transportation administrator, at the rest area to talk about the next step. The plan is to locate the memorial at the southern end of the park, so that it does not detract from the Blackthorn Memorial for 23 Coast Guard crew members who died when the Blackthorn and the tanker Capricorn collided near the skyway. That was four months before the Summit Venture rammed the bridge.
As they stood looking toward the shipping channel, DeYoung spoke of his vision for a large granite rock with a bronze plaque. Gregory cautioned that it might be too heavy for the site, which was created from fill. A monument company has since offered DeYoung other ideas.
As they discussed the bureaucratic requirements ahead, Gregory was reassuring.
"You've already got your foot in the door," he said. "Let's try to see if we can make it work."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.