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Retired steamship agent reveals link to ship in Sunshine Skyway collapse

I was a steamship agent in 1980, which is to say I took care of ships that called at Tampa. I worked for Interore Shipping, a subsidiary of International Ore & Fertilizer, itself a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. Interore was a small office, just seven employees, including two agents, and we handled only bulk carrier ships and most of those foreign-flag.

Bringing ships in

Among other duties, an agent arranged for the cargo to be at port, arranged for the pilot to meet the ship and bring it in, for the tugs to assist in docking and for line-handlers to stand by at the dock to tie up the ship.

The Summit Venture was scheduled to dock at the Rockport terminal to load phosphate rock. Rockport had two berths, one for loading, and a "lay" berth where the next ship in line could wait its turn. It wasn't a requirement for the next ship in line to wait at the lay berth, just convenient. It was also customary to bring in a ship "in ballast" i.e. with seawater in its ballast tanks to level the ship for open-sea travel, and then pump out the ballast water at the lay berth. Most ships used "dual-agency" which meant one agent represented both the ship owner and the charterer of the ship, and took care of both the cargo needs and the ship needs. But sometimes there would be a charterer's agent and an owner's agent. In such cases the charter usually specified that the charterer's agent make most arrangements, while the owner's agent looked after crew and ship maintenance.

Troubling break in routine, then shocking discovery

The Summit Venture owners had their own agent, Fillette Green & Co. and the agent assigned was Ernest "Skeeter" Buck. I was the charterer's agent. Now we come to the night before the Skyway tragedy. The ship arrived off Egmont Key and would normally have proceeded directly in and to the Rockport terminal lay berth. It would have docked in the late evening and been in place to shift forward to the loading berth in time to start loading when the previous ship finished up the next morning.

But I had a Mensa party to attend that evening, our annual "Beach Bash," and I hated to miss the opening event of the weekend. I called Skeeter Buck, and he had something else he wanted to do, too. I then arranged for a pilot to board the ship in the pre-dawn hours and bring the ship directly to the loading berth in the morning. Because the ship would be going directly to the loading berth and because the Rockport terminal could load phosphate rock into the ship faster than ballast-tank pumps could pump out the ballast water, I told the captain to go ahead and pump out his ballast water at that time. He would come in bow-high but it would only be transiting Tampa Bay and that would not be a problem; we did this all the time. I went off to my party and had a good time.

When the pilot boards the ship, gets underway and actually passes by the Egmont Key lighthouse, he radios to his office that he is "by the light" and the office then telephones the agent. We knew how long it took for a ship to get from that point to any of dozens of terminals around the Tampa Bay area. We would then call out tugs, line handlers, government officials if needed, with an accurate ETA for the dock.

At about 7:30 a.m. I was up, showered and dressing. I had a sense that something was — odd. I should have heard from the pilot's office before this. When the phone did ring, I got quite a shock. I heard Mr. Buckley, their night man, tell me the ship had hit the Skyway Bridge and that the bridge had collapsed. Over the phone I could hear his radio still chattering with the pilot's calls for help from the Cost Guard, from anyone at all. (And kudos to Eckerd College's EC-SAR program for being first on-scene.)

Changing ties to ill-fated 'Summit Venture'

I went, not to my office, but direct to the Customshouse, then located where the convention center is today. I was sitting on the front steps waiting for the doors to open when Ann Avery, Customs Marine Division chief, showed up for work at 8 a.m.

"Good morning, Steve," She said, unlocking the door. "What do you want?"

"I'm here to cancel my bond on the Summit Venture" I told her. This was an unusual but not unheard-of thing. Contracts change sometimes. My charterer's bond was good for, among other things, all expenses the ship incurred in port. This ship was going to have some huge expenses.

Ann got out the paperwork and handed me back my bond. She had not heard anything about the ship hitting the bridge.

"Will someone else be down to post a bond?" she asked.

"Oh, yes." I said. "Fillette Green will be doing that."

I was not violating any law. I was operating on the principal that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission. I knew that, as a matter of law, the instant the Summit Venture's bow touched that bridge, it "went off charter" as no longer being able to fulfill its mission. Because the ship (thank God) happened to have a local owner's agent — instead of being a dual-agency as was more customary — this mess was henceforth the owner's agent's to sort out.

Which Fillette Green did. For years. I avoided all court appearances other than one cursory deposition. The ship did come into to port some weeks later, once the bridge wreckage had been cleared from the channel. When I first saw it I was amazed. It still had the roadway draped over the bow, complete with striped lines. Once the roadway was removed from the ship and some very minor damage repaired, I actually took the ship back on charter and it loaded its phosphate rock and went on about its business.

• • •

You know the rest, the storm, the out-of-control ship, Captain Lerro's decision to try to run the bridge without proper navigation information. The resultant collision. The years of lawsuits. But I have never, before this, told anyone about my experience in those fateful days, or the real reason the ship was coming in that morning instead of the night before: I didn't want the ship coming in at 11 at night.

The writer, 65, retired from the steamship agency business in late 1984 and has been a full-time nonfiction freelance journalist ever since.

Retired steamship agent reveals link to ship in Sunshine Skyway collapse 05/07/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 8, 2010 8:12pm]
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