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Tragedy of the Sunshine Skyway harbor pilot is now a one-man play

People say Capt. John Lerro was a drunk, and blame him for the local disaster. His character onstage will clear up misconceptions that still circulate today.
Michael Horn stars as John Lerro, the harbor pilot in control of the ship that destroyed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1980, in Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge. The world premiere of the one-person play takes place June 25 and 26 at thestudio@620.
Michael Horn stars as John Lerro, the harbor pilot in control of the ship that destroyed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1980, in Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge. The world premiere of the one-person play takes place June 25 and 26 at thestudio@620. [ Courtesy of Gemini Arts ]
Published Jun. 23
Updated Jun. 24

On the foggy morning of May 9, 1980, tragedy struck at the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

Blinded by the storm, the 19,734-ton Summit Venture freighter smashed into the support columns of the old bridge. A 1,200-foot span of the Skyway collapsed, crashing into the water below. Thirty-five people died.

The horrors of that day haunted Capt. John Lerro, the harbor pilot steering the ship, for the rest of his life. Lerro died in 2002. Now, his story will be told in a one-person play.

“The whole point of this play is what John said many times,” said journalist and playwright Bill DeYoung. “He never stopped thinking about it.”

The world premiere of Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge, takes place June 25 and 26 at the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg. Directed by Roxanne Fay, the play stars Michael Horn as Lerro.

The collapsed span of the Sunshine Skyway silhouetted against the morning sky.
The collapsed span of the Sunshine Skyway silhouetted against the morning sky. [ ERIC MENCHER | Times (1980) ]

In 2013, DeYoung penned, “Skyway: The true story of Tampa Bay’s signature bridge and the man who brought it down.” The book has become a widely-used resource for people interested in learning about this dark chapter of local history, though a pair of divers who were there that day disputed the accuracy of some parts.

After reading thousands of pages of legal proceedings, DeYoung wrote the play Mayday to be performed in 2020 — the 40th anniversary of the disaster.

“I’ve always seen John Lerro as a character out of a Shakespearean tragedy,” DeYoung said. “You know, he’s the central figure in everything, and his life took a nosedive, understandably, when this happened. And even though he was exonerated, legally, and went back to work, things were never the same for him.”

Then the pandemic hit. Fifteen minutes of the show were shared online. It was put on pause for over a year, until vaccines became widely available and St. Petersburg opened up more.

Bill DeYoung, a St. Petersburg native and author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down.
Bill DeYoung, a St. Petersburg native and author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down.

Immediately following the Skyway disaster, Lerro became a pariah. He was exonerated after a court found that a freak weather formation, not alcohol, caused the crash. But people still blame Lerro.

His character onstage will clear up misconceptions.

“He had gone under the bridge 900 times without any problems,” said actor Michael Horn. “It did not work out that time. But it wasn’t really his fault.”

The script that Horn will recite onstage is rooted in DeYoung’s extensive research. The material pulls from court hearings, media reports, and conversations with Lerro’s family and friends. The reporting behind the project helped Horn get inside Lerro’s head.

Michael Horn stars as John Lerro, the harbor pilot in control of the ship that destroyed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1980, in Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge. The world premiere of the one-person play takes place June 25 and 26 at The Studio@620.
Michael Horn stars as John Lerro, the harbor pilot in control of the ship that destroyed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1980, in Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge. The world premiere of the one-person play takes place June 25 and 26 at The Studio@620. [ Courtesy of Gemini Arts ]

“He felt very responsible for 35 people dying,” Horn said. “It was not easy for he himself to set the record straight.”

“Some people were really exposed to the media’s version of John Lerro, which was not very fair,” he continued. “This story is going to set the record straight because people will see him as a human, as a person who had a lot of struggles.”

If you go

Performances of Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge take place at 8 p.m. Friday, June 25, and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 26.

Tickets are $20 and available at thestudio@620.com.

correction: Correction: A previous version of this story listed the wrong date for the Skyway accident. The story has been updated.