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Skipper calls for improved forecasts

Improvements at the area's weather station might have prevented the Sunshine Skyway disaster that killed 35 people in 1980, says the harbor pilot whose ship rammed the bridge. John Lerro said a major reason he was cleared in the Skyway disaster May 9, 1980, was that the National Weather Service was late in issuing a storm warning.

"The weather warning went out at 8 a.m. I hit the bridge at 7:34 a.m. If I would have known the magnitude of the storm, I wouldn't have taken an empty vessel in there," he said.

Lerro added his support Monday to a Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council resolution urging Congress to speed up the installation of high-tech equipment at the weather station in Ruskin, now scheduled for 1995.

The Ruskin station is 105th of 115 Weather Service stations on a priority list for overhauls, said Paul Herbert, the Weather Service's state manager.

"That's terrible," council member Jan Platt said. "That doesn't make sense."

The 35-member council investigated the Ruskin station after news reports that it failed about half the time last year to warn residents of severe weather.

Rob Balfour, Ruskin's chief meteorologist in charge, has said that outdated equipment, a shortage of forecasters and a two-year backlog on spare parts make it difficult to be accurate much more than half the time.