Robert Raiola never fully left the Skyway.
The 73-year-old is there when he recalls inspecting the bridge as a Florida Department of Transportation diver with his friend and former coworker, Michael Betz, 66. He’s there when he remembers diving off his boat in the bay with friends, and bringing back stone crabs to cook up with his family.
It’s where he went to scatter the ashes of his first wife, Nancy, in the waves next to the bridge. When his time comes, he wants to join her.
And even though it haunts him, he has not been able to stop thinking about the bridge inspection-turned-disaster response the day the Sunshine Skyway bridge collapsed 40 years ago this week. He still obsesses over that stormy morning he and Betz spent pulling bodies from a Greyhound bus that had crashed into the bay’s choppy waters.
He wants his grandchildren to know what he saw.
Raiola and Betz started the rainy morning of May 9, 1980, with a trip to get coffee and breakfast sandwiches at The Bunny Hut on U.S. 19. They had planned to talk about the routine inspection work ahead of them at the Skyway that day.
Raiola, then 33, was a fiery Italian American with a thick dark mustache, still showing his new partner the ropes. Raiola had worked as an underwater bridge inspector for the Department of Transportation for six years, traveling to bridges around the state to inspect structural integrity from the waterline down. He loved to share stories about his dives, especially the times when he had to work among sharks or wrestle off alligators.
Betz, was a quiet 26-year-old who had recently been discharged after five years as a U.S. Navy underwater photographer. His naturally red hair had turned strawberry blonde after long days swimming in the pool, and he was excited to start a new job where he could swim and shoot photos again. He had only been diving three times before with Raiola. Two dives had been at the Skyway.
A waitress interrupted breakfast with what Raiola thought was a bad joke: “The Skyway just got hit.”
Soon a crackling radio call from their boss confirmed it: There had been a terrible accident.
The 19,734-ton Summit Venture freighter, lost in fog, had slammed into the support columns of the old Skyway bridge. A 1,200-foot span of the bridge collapsed into the water below.
Raiola and Betz didn’t know then that they were about to stumble into one of the deadliest accidents in Florida history.
A truck, six cars, and the Greyhound bus plummeted, too, falling 150 feet before hitting the surface of Tampa Bay. Thirty-five people would die.
Betz had only been on the transportation department job for five working days.
“We were prepared to go that morning,” Raiola said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times this year. “If you can imagine being in that situation — it’s like joining the fire department on September 6, and then 9/11 comes in, you’re climbing up the steps in the Twin Towers.”
The pair rushed to the Pinellas Maintenance Compound on Ulmerton Road to load up their 16-foot FDOT Boston Whaler with gear before driving toward the Skyway.
They sped down the incomplete dirt roadway that would become Interstate 275. When they finally turned onto U.S. 19, they drove on the road's shoulder to swerve around the traffic. They slipped past the emergency personnel road barricade to get to O’Neill’s marina and, finally, launched their boat into the channel.
As they passed the Skyway rest area, they finally saw it through the rain and fog: The iconic bridge, with a section ripped out and a steel truss dangling over the water.
Betz had been at the Skyway a few days before. Returning felt like visiting the pyramids in Egypt and finding a pile of crumbled rocks.
Gliding through the water toward the bridge, he wondered: Would there be anyone left to rescue?
Near the bridge, boats circled the bay looking for floating bodies. The Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team had trained student divers and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue workers on two boats, 32 and 24 feet long, to look for survivors.
One of the Eckerd students was Michael Rosselet, then in his early 20s.
"We had no idea what we were getting into,” Rosselet said.
When they reached the bridge, Raiola motored up to one of the Eckerd boats. Betz called to ask the Eckerd team to tie off their small DOT boat to the larger Eckerd vessel.
But Bill Covert, leader of the Eckerd team, was confused. His team had been dispatched after the 911 call and was working with the Coast Guard and other agencies, but not DOT. What was this small boat doing?
Raiola identified himself. He wanted to get into the water, and fast.
After a tense exchange, the Eckerd team agreed to tie the DOT boat off. They would work together.
Then Raiola and Betz dove.
Betz could finally see the submerged Greyhound bus, wheels up.
“We may have people on that bus that are trapped in air pockets,” Betz thought as he swam down. “And we're going to bring them out.”
The bus top was sheared off, the body flipped and partially collapsed. Raiola signaled for Betz to wait outside while he entered through where the smashed front window should have been. He didn’t want to chance the two of them getting trapped inside the narrow, mangled mess.
As he crawled into the dark bus alone, he saw passengers still trapped in their seats upside down. None had survived.
It was clear this would be a retrieval, not a rescue.
Raiola pulled out victims to pass to Betz, starting with Michael Curtain, the bus driver. Each swam up with two victims and handed them to the Eckerd team.
Betz had seen tragic things in the Navy. But he had never actually removed dead people from the water. He decided to hold the victims by the backs of their shirts. He didn’t want to look at their faces.
The Greyhound driver was one of the first victims out, Rosselet recalls. He can still remember tying the body to the dive platform on the Eckerd boat. He also tried to avoid looking closely.
But Raiola prayed as he looked at each one. He’d held friends in his arms in Vietnam and watched as they died. He wanted to pay similar respect to the victims, remembering their humanity even as he had to use rough treatment to free them from the bus.
I'm sorry that I have to do this, he thought. I’ll do everything I can to help you get back to your family.
Raiola and Betz dove a second time to retrieve more bodies. Raiola grabbed three. On his way out of the bus, Raiola saw what looked like a diaper bag. He used to carry around a similar bag when he became a father. Where was the parent who owned the bag? Where was the child?
He planned to return to find them. The last thing he remembered was looking back at the mass of tangled bodies in the back of the bus.
But they wouldn’t swim back to the bus a third time.
Another storm was coming, and the Eckerd boats were already filled with bodies. Covert asked the DOT divers to untie their boat so his crew could take the victims to a makeshift morgue at Mullet Key.
It was unsafe to stay, he said. A portion of the steel roadway was still dangling from the bridge above the boats, like an arrow pointing straight down. Covert had told his team if it fell, the best they could do was jump for it. But the plan made him nervous, and he wasn’t sure how much time they had.
So he called for backup. An on-scene Coast Guard commander with a large gun and a gold badge told the DOT divers to leave.
Raiola thought, if he could have stayed longer, they could have recovered every victim. It didn’t seem right to leave.
“I was a Marine,” he said. “You don't leave anybody behind.”
Raiola and Betz returned to the Skyway the next day to start a weeks-long daily process documenting the bridge’s condition and wreckage on the bottom of the bay for the National Transportation Safety Board. They weren’t called to help with further victim retrieval, and Raiola couldn’t stop wondering about the people still in the water.
Especially on Mother’s Day, two days after the Skyway fell.
“I went home and kissed my wife, gave her a big hug,” Raiola said. “Gave my kids a big hug and thought about all those mothers and families that were never, ever going to see their family and loved ones again.”
The Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team would go on to be recognized in newspaper articles and TV segments, books and documentaries.
Raiola and Betz weren’t interviewed by the Evening Independent or the St. Petersburg Times. For decades, few even knew that they’d been at the disaster.
It didn’t bother Betz, but as time went on, it started to grate on Raiola.
“It was hard to leave that site knowing that there were still people out there,” Raiola said. “It was harder later on, years afterwards, when I started reading in the paper, usually around the anniversary.”
Then in 2013, Bill DeYoung published his book, “Skyway: The true story of Tampa Bay’s signature bridge and the man who brought it down.” Though transportation department divers were listed as present, Raiola and Betz’s names weren’t mentioned. Rosselet was credited with reaching into the bus to grab the Greyhound driver.
"I learned about Bob and Mike's involvement in this after the book was published," DeYoung said. "There were many divers in the water that morning."
DeYoung said he later got documents from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that listed Raiola and Betz as the first DOT divers who had gone in.
“It was chaos out there,” DeYoung said. “They're not in the book because I didn't know they existed at the time.”
Raiola didn’t know about the book until he saw a flyer in 2018 about a speaking event featuring DeYoung. His daughter Stephanie bought him a copy. He was horrified when he read the description of the Eckerd divers heroically diving into the Greyhound. The DOT divers were not named, barely mentioned aside from the “tense territorial squabbling” with the Eckerd crew.
Raiola and his daughter went together to watch DeYoung give a book talk. Sitting in the back of the room, Raiola couldn’t stop shaking and crying, standing up at least a dozen times to correct DeYoung before his daughter guided him to sit.
His wife Sarah said the book set off an obsession.
“It has been very harrowing to go through what he’s been going through,” she said. “It’s taken up two years of our life.”
Raiola decided to tell his own story and correct the history. As he ages, he wants his children and grandchildren to know what he saw. Last winter, he began posting his photos and memories of the Skyway in the “Florida, See it Like a Native” Facebook group.
When filmmakers Frankie Vandeboe and Steve Yerrid put out a call for stories for a Skyway documentary they were making, Raiola reached out.
Betz agreed to be interviewed, too, to support his friend. Betz views what he did 40 years ago as a small part of his story. He’s a husband, taking care of his wife in Lakeland. A father and grandfather.
“This is just an asterisk in my life,” he said. “It doesn't define me by anything.”
Raiola felt relief to tell his story and set history straight. His memories of that day still hurt. He can still remember staring at the faces of the victims he pulled from the wreckage.
"You look,” he said. “You pay for it … but it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”
How this story was reported
The Sunshine Skyway disaster remains one of Florida’s most tragic accidents. To commemorate the 40 year anniversary, we wanted to tell the story of two men who received little recognition for their efforts.
The information in this story was gathered over four months, involving multiple interviews with Robert Raiola and Michael Betz and their family members. To reconstruct the retrieval at the Skyway, we also interviewed Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team founder Bill Covert and diver Michael Rosselet. We interviewed filmmakers Steve Yerrid and Frankie Vandeboe, and author Bill DeYoung. Photographs and information from the Tampa Bay Times archives were also used.
Journalism like this takes a lot of time and resources. Please consider subscribing or donating.