ST. PETERSBURG — As he stood, mouth agape, behind the wheelhouse glass, Bruce Atkins watched the center section of the Sunshine Skyway bridge buckle and collapse into the water in slow motion. One car after another dropped from the broken span, headlights illuminating the steady drizzle as the vehicles made eerily balletic spirals through the air and disappeared into Tampa Bay.
It was 7:33 a.m., May 9, 1980, 30 years ago today.
More than 85 feet above the waterline on the bridge of the freighter MV Summit Venture, Atkins — on the very last day of his 30-day training period to become a Tampa Bay harbor pilot — realized that his ship had struck the Skyway.
"We hit it softly," the 62-year-old says today, the memory all too vivid. "It felt like we hit a sock. I didn't feel the vessel move. I didn't feel it shudder."
Capt. John Lerro, who was piloting the Summit Venture through the shipping lanes toward the Port of Tampa, understood, too late, that he had strayed from the main channel. Visibility was practically zero. He had ordered the anchors dropped and the engines full astern, but at 609 feet, the Summit Venture was slow to respond.
"We're not gonna do this, we're not gonna do this," Atkins thought as the bow grazed the Skyway's secondary support piling known as Pier 2S.
After a breathless moment, the 20,000-ton vessel groaned to a stop. "You look up, and here's this cascading bridge coming down," Atkins recalls, "and you stand there going, 'What the hell? We didn't even hit it — what is this about?' You're standing there going, 'We didn't do that!' And that's really what it felt like."
Thirty-five people died that morning; 26 of them were on a Greyhound bus bound for Miami.
The incident, a Coast Guard Board of Inquiry would later rule, was the result of a chain of unforeseeable circumstances, of bad timing and even worse luck. It began with blinding gusts of rain-choked wind — 60 or 70 mph — and the unexplained failure of the Summit Venture's radar system just as Lerro was to make a crucial turn that would safely clear the bridge's 150-foot main span.
The Coast Guard, and a state grand jury, declared the incident an act of God.
In his first extensive interview about the Skyway tragedy, Bruce Atkins says he still remembers that terrible, pit-in-the-stomach feeling. He has run the incident over and over in his mind, factoring in everything Lerro had to deal with, and wondering if he himself would have made different decisions.
If the results would have been different.
In 1980, Atkins was 32, a veteran sea captain with a decade of experience taking big tankers around the world for Gulf Oil. Becoming a licensed harbor pilot — a relatively cushy job, as he saw it — required "apprenticing" with as many of the veterans as possible on their hopscotch runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Tampa.
On the morning of May 9, Atkins says, he really didn't want to get on the Summit Venture.
Although Atkins liked Lerro, he felt the dark-eyed New Yorker was "excitable" and had silently questioned some of his decisions on their previous voyages together.
"But the rationalization was, 'I'm going to be here for the next 40 years, and why stir the pot?' " Atkins says. "You ride with 29, why not ride with the 30th? It's one ride up the bay, and that's it."
Once the first agonizing minutes were over, and traffic on the bridge had mercifully stopped, Atkins took a moment to absorb what had just happened.
"That's when you wanted to go out on the wing and throw up," he explains. "That didn't happen, but it sure felt like it."
As for Lerro, "If he stepped out on the wing and had the same conversation with himself that I had with myself, he was thinking 'Did I cause this? Was it something I did?' And unless you do the 'Act of God' road, the answer is 'yes.' "
'Can we make it?'
Although the captain is in absolute command of a vessel on the high seas, in port it's another story.
Every state mandates that incoming cargo vessels bring a licensed harbor pilot aboard — someone who is familiar with the local waterways and can navigate them safely.
The mission of the Summit Venture and its Chinese crew was to take on 28,000 tons of bulk phosphate, maneuver back down Mullet Key Channel and deliver the cargo to South Korea.
Although the empty ship rode high in the water, keeping it steady and inside the 35-foot deep channel on May 9 was a challenge with the soupy fog, unpredictable winds and a radar screen cluttered with return from the storm squalls.
Still, "there was not a great sense of anxiety," Atkins says. "We were doing what we were trained to do."
Atkins was manning the ship's radar when it failed, at the very moment Lerro was to order a crucial 18-degree turn under the Skyway's main span.
They thought they knew where they were, Atkins recalls. "But in essence, we're crabbing this way and being blown this way.
"The next thing that you really see is the bridge. You look up and you see the set of lights, and it's the wrong set of abutments. We're two to the right.
"I distinctly remember looking at that, and it was still a ways up there … and I'm looking at it and thinking 'Okay, can we make it underneath that?' "
Atkins considered himself a pretty tough guy — he still does — but the months after the crash, packed with hearings, investigations and the incessant probing of reporters, got to him.
"During those months, one of the Coast Guard guys said to me 'You just started, and you've got a tough road. Three strikes and you're out down here (in Tampa Bay), and you already got one major one against you.' That was always ringing in my mind."
He says he was disappointed that the Tampa Bay Pilots Association wasn't more supportive.
"I think for the most part that's how they live their lives. They do their jobs, they bring ships in, and their buddies are not necessarily the other pilots. They weren't involved."
He felt, he admits, as if his co-workers abandoned him. "I guess I need the comfort of guidance from some team member, who would say 'Take a deep breath. We'll help you along the way, and we'll get there.' And I never got that feeling.
"It didn't work. I wish it had. Because I would have made the right choices and decisions, because I think I would have done it for years and enjoyed every breath of it."
He broke his association contract — "I told them 'This is not what I had signed up for' " — left Florida and went back to work for Gulf Oil.
Allen Thompson, current executive director of the pilots association, wishes the outcome had been different.
"When you look at how groups and associations coped with a traumatic experience 30 years ago, it's handled a lot differently today," says Thompson, who was not part of the association in 1980. "Now, someone would arrange for grief counseling, or for someone to come and talk with the group — how to support each other, as well as how to support the individual.
"I'm not sure any of those things were done 30 years ago. And they probably should have been."
Lerro was exonerated and returned to piloting the bay, but the onset of multiple sclerosis docked him for good within two years. He died in 2002 — haunted to the very end, his widow would tell reporters later, by his role in the deaths of those 35 people.
Atkins resigned from Gulf in 1984, went into business and in the '90s earned an MBA from the University of New Hampshire.
Today, he is the vice president of asset optimization for Global Companies LLC, a fuel supply and distribution group in Waltham, Mass., where he lives with his wife, Gail.
On the wall of his office is a large, framed photograph of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, its steel trusses broken and dangling, the humbled Summit Venture at anchor a few hundred yards to the west.
Search and rescue boats are looking for survivors they would never find.
"For me," he says, "this was a life-defining day. I have that picture up to keep what I'm doing in perspective. So when I have my employees come in and complain about issues that may seem very important to them, but in the scheme of things are quite minor, it's easy for me to turn around and look at that and say, 'You know what? You're just going through a little bump.'
"I point to the picture and say, 'That's a bad day. You don't get past those.' "
St. Petersburg native Bill DeYoung is a Savannah, Ga.-based journalist who began his career as a Times correspondent in 1976. He is writing a book about the Sunshine Skyway tragedy.