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Review: 'Skyway' a compelling analysis of a Tampa Bay disaster

Published Oct. 11, 2013

The Sunshine Skyway, a graceful arc shining white and golden over the mouth of Tampa Bay, is the bay area's most recognizable structure, star of countless TV ads, postcards and logos.

But it hasn't always been a thing of beauty. On the terrible morning of May 9, 1980, the first Sunshine Skyway was a disaster zone after a freak storm, a 606-foot phosphate ship, a controversial harbor pilot and the bridge's own structural weaknesses converged, and 35 people died in the dark waters beneath it.

The story of the bridge, especially that fatal day in May and its aftermath, is the subject of journalist Bill DeYoung's book Skyway. DeYoung, a St. Petersburg native now living in Savannah, Ga., builds this compelling book on extensive interviews as well as research.

DeYoung lays the foundation with a history of the bridge and of the harbor pilots who guide enormous ships through the shallow waters of Tampa Bay (average depth 12 feet) to its bustling port. Dreams of a bridge (or tunnel) crossing the mouth of the bay go back to Florida's first land boom in the 1920s, but it was 1954 before the first Sunshine Skyway, a two-lane, two-way span, opened. It was such a significant event that the St. Petersburg Times published a 278-page special edition, including 15 sections and weighing 4 pounds, to salute it.

When a second, matching span opened in 1971, it was less newsworthy. But the newer, westernmost bridge would only last for nine years, until the early morning the Summit Venture slammed into the unprotected supports south of the ship channel (narrowly missing the other span's supports).

In a sudden, vicious "macroburst" storm cell with blinding rains and near-hurricane force winds, a Greyhound bus and six cars dove through the broken bridge into oblivion. A seventh car, with four men inside, stopped a mere 14 inches from the torn edge of the bridge's peak.

Piloting the Summit Venture was John Lerro, a fairly recent addition to the roster of harbor pilots based on Egmont Key. DeYoung focuses much of the book on Lerro, whose story is not a simple one, and on the only person to survive the fall from the Skyway, Gulfport resident Wesley MacIntire, who was rescued by the ship's crew after swimming free of his submerged pickup truck.

DeYoung re-creates the day of the disaster skillfully, with both hold-your-breath suspense and a careful breakdown of cause and effect. In the aftermath we see how, in different ways, Lerro's and MacIntire's lives are changed forever.

In 1987 the new Sunshine Skyway — with a higher summit, a deeper channel and a formidable protective system — opened. A few years later, the center spans of the old bridges were demolished, the remainders turned into fishing piers.

MacIntire died of prostate cancer in 1989; Lerro, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about a year after the disaster, died of its effects in 2002. The Summit Venture, sold and renamed several times, sank in a storm off Vietnam in 2010.

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