Sunday, May 27, 2018
News Roundup

Drawbridge supervisor Samuel Graves saw bridge disasters up close

SEMINOLE — On Jan. 30, 1973, four elderly Canadian tourists drove beneath a descending gate and onto the rising drawbridge of the Treasure Island Causeway.

Luckily for them, their car got snagged by its frame at the top of the western half of the drawbridge. For two hours, the trapped women hung inside their car at a precarious 45-degree angle until a bucket truck could lower them to safety.

Then on May 9, 1980, a freighter rammed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Thirty-five people fell to their deaths.

Samuel Graves, a supervisor of drawbridges for the DOT, was on hand for both rescue efforts, each of which drew worldwide attention in different ways.

His job at the Skyway required that he ascend a two-man elevator to the top of the bridge structure, where he replaced light bulbs that guided airplanes passing overhead.

He was there shortly after the bridge collapsed, and watched motorists who had just missed death quickly abandoning their cars — including one who stopped to retrieve his golf clubs.

For nearly 25 years, Mr. Graves had seen all kinds of craziness on bridges, endured frustrated drivers and mechanical failures at the worst possible time.

"People got angry if the bridge wouldn't go up or down," said Catherine Graves, 77, his wife.

Mr. Graves shrugged off the stresses — and the danger. Once, while clambering in the guts of a bridge trying to fix a fan, he lost a ring finger.

He used the missing digit as a prop to amuse his grandchildren.

"He would put it to his nose and say, 'That booger's way up there,' " his wife said.

Mr. Graves was a quiet man who kept a cool head, a man who was used to crowds. He grew up in Shelburn, Ind., in a large family. He spent eight years in the Navy, ran a milk distributorship, married and remarried.

After moving to Florida in 1969 for a better job, he worked for the DOT as an armed foreman of a prison road crew. He and Catherine raised eight children in a blended family.

"He never really got into your business unless you asked him," said Dan Graves, 57, chief of the St. Pete Beach Fire Department and Mr. Graves' son. "If you needed some advice, he'd give it to you."

After he retired in the early 1990s, Mr. Graves and his wife worked as school crossing guards.

Family members flocked here from across the country as his health declined. Mr. Graves died Feb. 24, of lung cancer. He was 85.

Dan Graves said he learned patience from his father. "Don't let the little things bother you," he said.

Researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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