He represented the captain who hit the Sunshine Skyway. Now, Steve Yerrid is making a film.

The Summit Venture sits in Tampa Bay in May 1980 with part of the Sunshine Skyway on its deck. The ship crashed into the Old Sunshine Skyway bridge, killing 35 people. [Times (1980)]
The Summit Venture sits in Tampa Bay in May 1980 with part of the Sunshine Skyway on its deck. The ship crashed into the Old Sunshine Skyway bridge, killing 35 people. [Times (1980)]
Published May 3, 2019

A tourist from London spotted a film crew near John's Pass and walked over to ask what they were shooting.

A documentary, they replied, about the deaths of 35 people in the freighter crash that collapsed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in May 1980.

"We asked if he'd heard about it," said producer Frank VanDeBoe, 60. "He said, 'I know all about that drunk SOB captain who crashed.' "

The exchange reinforced the producers' motive for making the film: A freak weather formation, not alcohol, was blamed in the crash and Capt. John Lerro was exonerated.

Lerro's attorney, Steve Yerrid of Tampa, is co-producing the documentary with VanDeBoe.

"It weighed on him a lot," Yerrid said. "It would bother anybody. Without knowing the facts, he was prejudged because people want a fall guy."

READ MORE: When the Sunshine Skyway Bridge plunged into Tampa Bay

It was the morning of May 9, 1980 — 39 years ago Thursday — when harbor pilot Lerro guided the Summit Venture freighter through the shipping channel that runs beneath the Skyway Bridge.

Fog was already an issue when, suddenly and without warning, the sky exploded with rain and 60-mph tropical-storm force winds.

Blinded by the weather, Lerro was unaware that his freighter had been pushed off course.

Just as suddenly, the sky cleared, but it was too late. At 7:33 a.m., the freighter struck a bridge pier.

Six cars, a truck and Greyhound bus fell 150 feet into the water. The youngest victim was 7 months old. The oldest was 92.

Attorney Yerrid successfully defended his client with an "act of God" argument.

Still, by the time the state inquiry was over, some people had already made up their minds about Lerro.

Some people came to believe, falsely, that Lerro was an alcoholic.

"He wasn't," VanDeBoe said. "He was a health nut."

Others called him incompetent.

"An 'act of God' is a term that turns a lot of people off," Yerrid said.

"When you think about your life, you like to think you are in control. You're not. You could be driving to Little League and another driver has a heart attack and crashes into you. Life can change in a second. That scares a lot of people. So, they won't accept it."

The documentary is undergoing edits, but the producers screened some of the raw footage for the Tampa Bay Times.

The narrator is retired WTVT-Ch. 13 news anchor John Wilson. The film includes interviews with survivors, reporters who covered the tragedy and elected officials of the time including former Florida Gov. Bob Graham — for whom the new Skyway span is named — and former Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez.

Animators created a chilling recreation of the crash as Lerro would have seen it — the thick fog, the blurring rain, and the view of the bridge once the storm cleared.

Then the animation shifts to a wide shot to show the crash, the structure crumbling, and vehicles plunging from the bridge — including a blue Ford Courier pickup truck that fell onto the freighter — while real audio of Lerro's 911 call plays.

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"The Skyway bridge is down!" he yells frantically.

After his trial in the collision, Lerro returned to work as a captain but he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and gave it up just eight months later.

Suffering from depression, he took up counseling of criminals and rape victims and volunteering at a suicide hotline.

Yerrid went on to gain fame, in part, by helping Florida reach a record settlement in its landmark 1990s lawsuit against major tobacco companies. But he never did let go of the Lerro case, staying in touch with his former client and serving as a confidante.

"It was not unusual for him to call me at three in the morning," Yerrid said. "He'd tell me how he talked a kid out of suicide that day and say, 'I did something good with my life today.' There was self-guilt, self-conviction. That was cyclical until he died."

Lerro died in Tampa of complications from the multiple sclerosis on Aug. 31, 2002. He was 59.

Yerrid delivered a eulogy at the funeral.

The documentary, Yerrid said, "is also about the bond he and I developed. I loved the guy. He was a good and genuine person."

A few months before his death, Lerro took a ride aboard Yerrid's boat with their mutual friend Wade Boggs, the baseball Hall of Famer and former Tampa Bay Ray. They set out for the Sunshine Skyway, the first time Lerro would see it from the water since the day of the crash.

While they were anchored in the channel, a 600-foot freighter approached. Yerrid radioed the captain to ask where he should go.

Recognizing Yerrid's name, the captain asked who was with him.

"I told him John Lerro, and he said, 'Let's treat him right,' " Yerrid said. "As the ship came by, he lays on the horn and gives a captain's salute. It was an unbelievable moment."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.