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Inches spared him Skyway's abyss

By a scant 14 inches, Paul G. "Dick" Hornbuckle escaped oblivion two decades ago when the old Sunshine Skyway collapsed and sent six cars, a pickup truck and a Greyhound bus tumbling into Tampa Bay.

In "a life-altering experience," Mr. Hornbuckle and his three traveling companions lived _ while 35 other people plunged to their deaths.

Last Friday, 10 days after the Skyway accident's 20th anniversary, Mr. Hornbuckle, 80, died at Tyrone Medical Inn. He had been a resident for about a month and died of natural causes, said a niece, Lee Ann Smedley of Largo.

Over the years, Mr. Hornbuckle spoke little publicly about the day of the accident.

"He didn't like to discuss it," his niece said Monday. "It was as close to death as you could come. It was a life-altering experience to him. He felt responsible for the other men in the car with him."

Braving a driving rainstorm on May 9, 1980, Mr. Hornbuckle was on the old Skyway when the phosphate freighter Summit Venture hit the bridge, collapsing the structure and sending the half-dozen cars, the pickup and the bus 150 feet into Tampa Bay.

One car, Mr. Hornbuckle's yellow 1976 Buick Skylark, came to a stop just 14 inches from the edge. Peering through the rain-soaked windshield, Mr. Hornbuckle had not seen the center span of the roadway disappear. But as his car neared the crest of the bridge, he realized the upper superstructure was missing.

That was the tip that saved their lives, he later told one of his passengers, Anthony Gattus. He realized something was terribly wrong and started braking immediately.

The car began to skid. Then the tires grabbed traction on the wet grating and the Buick made a life-saving stop.

"The wind was coming like a hurricane, and I was driving about 20 miles an hour because I could hardly see," Mr. Hornbuckle said in an interview on the day of the bridge collapse. "This bus went past me going about 30 miles an hour. I followed it over the hump of the bridge. And it wasn't there. The bus was gone."

He and his three passengers slipped and scrambled up the wet metal to safety. Shocked and frightened, Mr. Hornbuckle looked back and saw that all his car doors were open.

Forgetting the danger, he and a companion ran back to the car, wrenched out the keys and slammed the doors.

"It seems crazy now," he said in the interview. "But at the time I kept thinking my car would blow away if the doors were open."

Known to friends and family as "Dick" or "Uncle Dick" and identified in several stories as Richard, Mr. Hornbuckle, a wholesale car dealer, was en route to pick up some vehicles for resale in Pinellas County. Riding with him were Gattus and two other men, Jim Crispin and Kenneth Holmes.

"Hornbuckle was a real good driver," Gattus said recently. "I always felt safe with him. When the rain started hard, he slowed way down. Twenty. Don't think he could have been going faster than 20 mph."

A St. Petersburg resident for more than 70 years, Paul Grady Hornbuckle moved here from his native Allendale, Ga.

Survivors in addition to his niece include a nephew, Russell Smedley, St. Petersburg; and two grand nieces, Lisa and Jennifer Smedley, both of St. Petersburg.

Abbey Parklawn Funeral Home, Palm Harbor, is in charge of arrangements.

_ Information from Times files was used in this obituary.