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Journalist recalls scene just after Sunshine Skyway bridge fell in 1980

It was a few minutes past 7 a.m., and our day in the Evening Independent newsroom had just begun.

I was chatting with our police reporter, Bill Heltzel and Jack Alexander, the city editor. The police scanner suddenly stopped all conversation. "The bridge is down! The bridge is down! People are in the water!" said a voice we later learned was John Lerro, pilot of the MS Summit Venture. We looked at each other in disbelief. He couldn't be talking about the Skyway, could he?

His frantic exchanges with the Coast Guard removed any doubt.

Heltzel had the keys to the news car, and we sprinted through driving rain to the parking lot. Bill drove like a madman, while I shrugged into an old green Boy Scout poncho I'd grabbed from my desk drawer and prayed we didn't die in a car accident on our way to the biggest story either of us was likely to cover. The rain had let up a little by the time we got to the north toll booth. We paused just long enough to realize the toll takers were in shock and police had not yet closed the approach.

We headed for the top of the bridge.

We had no way of knowing how much of the span was gone, but we could see that we were ascending a roadway that ended in nothing but sky. Bill slowed the car to a crawl and we edged to the top where we could see a slanted section of metal bridgework pointed into nothing.

A small yellow Buick Skylark sat just a few feet from the abyss, at an angle as if it had skidded to a stop. A Florida Highway Patrol car sat a little farther away with two men in the back seat. I peered through the grating near the end of the bridge and saw through the water the wheels of an upside down bus, lying in a tangle of steel and concrete rubble. Suitcases and clothing floated above the debris and trailed from the windows of the bus.

The freighter Summit Venture sat nearly beneath the bridge, a section of concrete roadway draped across its bow. I was stunned and a little queasy. People had died here only a few minutes ago.

Through an open window, I introduced myself to one of the men in the FHP car. His hands were shaking so badly that he had trouble lighting a cigarette.

He said his name was Richard Hornbuckle. He had tried to shove the Skylark's brake pedal through the floorboard when he saw vehicles ahead of him tumble into the water; his front wheels skidded to a stop less than two feet from the abyss. Despite the scare, he had taken time to remove his golf clubs from the Buick's trunk.

We didn't have cell phones in those days, and regular commuters who had crossed the bridge without incident were unable to immediately reassure frantic relatives. Some of them rushed to the scene, including one woman who grabbed my arm when she saw me talking to our city desk on a two-way radio.

It was several hours since the bridge fell, and she hadn't heard from her husband, Wesley MacIntire. He was driving a pickup truck across the bridge shortly after 7 a.m. I directed her to emergency personnel without telling her that I had seen rescue workers load a man into an ambulance who had been fished from the water. I had heard he was driving a pickup truck and had been rescued by the ship's crew, but did not know his identity. I learned later that it was MacIntire, the only person to go off the bridge and survive.

The rest of that day is a chaotic blur. Cops and emergency personnel were everywhere, and by the end of the day the scene was crawling with reporters from all over the country.

When I saw the first aerial pictures that evening, my knees shook a little. I could see my old green poncho out near the end of the broken span, where it sloped toward the bay and was supported by nothing but air.

Don McBride retired in 2009 after a combined 30 years with the Evening Independent and St. Petersburg Times. The Independent closed in 1986.

Journalist recalls scene just after Sunshine Skyway bridge fell in 1980 05/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 9:53pm]
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