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Skyway bridge disaster coverage from 1980: Death rode in on early morning storm

This story from the Tampa Bay Times archives was written on May 9, 1980 for the next day’s newspaper.
Front page of the St. Petersburg Times May 10, 1980. Features coverage of the Sunshine Skyway disaster.
Front page of the St. Petersburg Times May 10, 1980. Features coverage of the Sunshine Skyway disaster. [ St. Petersburg Times ]
Published May 8, 2020|Updated Aug. 4, 2020

As part of our coverage of the 40th anniversary of the Sunshine Skyway bridge disaster, we are republishing this narrative written on May 9, 1980. The story ran on the front page of the St. Petersburg Times on May 10, 1980.

In the story, you’ll note that “at least 30” people were thought to have died. The true death toll was 35.

One of the writers, Paul Tash, is now chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times. The other, Deborah Blum, vividly remembers reporting that day, which was supposed to be her day off.

The toll booth operator allowed Blum to go onto the bridge when she showed him her press pass. With a shaking voice, he told her, “"Okay, you can go through but you still have to pay the toll!"

Neither Tash nor Blum can believe that 40 years have passed.

The ill wind and blinding rain of a blustery spring squall reached the Sunshine Skyway bridge Friday at the same moment a huge freighter did.

Drivers crept across the bridge's central span, going cautiously in a wet fog that clouded the water below and the steel structure above in thick white. Then came the crash.

"I thought at first it was thunder," said Jay Hirsch, a paramedic with Florida Ambulance Service who was driving north on the bridge. "Then something hit the bridge so hard it knocked my car out of its lane. I kept going till I got across. When I looked back I saw it. My God, the bridge had gone down."

The 608-foot-long Summit Venture, a Liberian-registered freighter headed for Tampa to pick up a load of phosphate, slammed into and damaged one of the supports of the west main span, then sheared off a support just south of the center span at 7:38 a.m.

The boat, longer than two football fields, rocked the bridge. It sheared off the support about 10 feet above the water line. As the supports under the central span of the southbound lanes collapsed, the metal grid above began to twist away.

Related: 40 years after Skyway bridge disaster, divers can't forget what they saw that day

Nearly 1,200 feet of metal and concrete roadway dropped into the gray-green waters of Tampa Bay. At least three cars and a pickup truck fell with it. And then a Greyhound bus, bound south from Chicago with 22 passengers and a driver, went blindly into the bay 150 feet below. Authorities say the final death count will be at least 30. Rescue workers had reports that a bus carrying migrant workers was “missing,” but divers at the scene found no trace of a second bus.

A St. Petersburg businessman driving north on the separate parallel span saw the Greyhound bus fall, tumbling into the water in a shower of concrete and metal chunks. He asked not to be identified, fearing a barrage of phone calls from insurance agents and investigators.

The summit venture, bridge debris hanging from its bow, is pictured shortly after it remained the sunshine skyway bridge.
The summit venture, bridge debris hanging from its bow, is pictured shortly after it remained the sunshine skyway bridge. [ BELL, DICK | St. Petersburg Times ]

But he told it like this: “I saw the outline of the freighter through the haze. Then I heard a very dull thump. Everything just sort of disintegrated. The road just collapsed. I saw the bus on its way down. Parts of the bridge were falling alongside it. I was practically in shock.”

Two persons who also witnessed the bridge collapse stopped at the northern toll booth to tell toll collectors.

Collector J. W. Smedley said that a heavy-set man in his late 20s “couldn’t hardly talk he was shaking so bad. He kept saying, ‘It’s gone! It’s gone!’ I didn’t know what he was talking about at first; then I couldn’t believe it.”

Related: Photos tell the tale of the Skyway bridge disaster

“He said he saw one car go over. He said (the driver of the car that fell) just wasn’t able to see that the bridge was out. If he’s a drinking man, I bet he’s drunk right now.”

Another toll collector, Mrs. Rae Duato, was in the adjacent booth when a woman drove up and announced, "The bridge has fallen in.”

“She wasn't hysterical,” Mrs. Duato said. "Her voice was just naturally high. She didn't go into detail about the boat hitting the bridge or anything.”

Behind the bus, another car on the southbound span slid to a panic-stricken stop on the trailing remnants of the bridge.

"The wind was coming like a hurricane and I was driving about 20 miles an hour because I could hardly see," said Dick Hornbuckle, 60. "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."

The car driven by Richard Hornbuckle was inches from disaster in 1980, but managed to stop on the wrecked old Sunshine Skyway bridge after the freighter  Summit Venture slammed into the bridge.
The car driven by Richard Hornbuckle was inches from disaster in 1980, but managed to stop on the wrecked old Sunshine Skyway bridge after the freighter Summit Venture slammed into the bridge. [ PHIL SHEFFIELD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Hornbuckle jammed his foot down on the brake. His 1976 Buick Skylark skidded onto the last ragged strip of metal left on the St. Petersburg side of the bridge and stopped slightly more than a foot from the edge.

He and his three passengers slipped and scrambled up the wet metal to safety. Almost immediately, a Florida Highway Patrol car hurried toward them. Terrified that the trooper would go past them and into the water, the men rushed toward the cruiser waving their arms and shouting.

"I had no idea that the bridge had gone down," Trooper Leroy Mcintosh said afterwards. "I'd been up there because of a minor accident. Then all at once I saw traffic starting to slow down again, so I went up to take another look. And then this driver came running up and told me that the whole span was out."

The trooper looked over the edge. A piece of the broken bridge about 40 feet long was draped across the bow of a freighter below. In front of him were cracked and broken pilings. No bridge curved over them for more than 1,000 feet. Through the metal grid under his feet, the wheels of a Greyhound bus could be seen in the water. The multimillion-dollar southbound span of the Skyway bridge looked like a broken Tinker-Toy structure. Mcintosh picked up his radio and sent out the first message of disaster.

Within minutes, the bridge was crowded with police and fire vehicles. Rescue boats from the Coast Guard were on their way in and a request for divers was broadcast throughout Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Hornbuckle, the shocked and frightened driver of the car that stopped just at the edge of the torn bridge, 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. "But at the time I kept thinking my car would blow away if the doors were open."

Meanwhile, troopers began turning Manatee County-bound motorists back toward St. Petersburg at the base of the bridge. Drivers at the tollbooth entrance on U.S. 19 were turned away. By 10 a.m., the northbound section was also shut down.

Officials from the Florida Department of Transportation said it had been struck by chunks of falling metal and a safety check was needed.

By day's end, 18 bodies had been recovered. The Coast Guard said that in addition to the 22 passengers and the driver aboard the bus, there were four persons in a Toyota, one in a Lincoln Continental and two in an El Camino. Only one motorist survived.

"It was raining very, very hard," said Wesley Maclntire, 56, of 4821 Tradewinds Drive, Gulfport. "I almost decided not to go across the bridge, but I kept going.

"As I approached the high point of the bridge, the whole bridge started to sway. Then I could see the ship and the end of the bridge was breaking off. I couldn't stop. I just slid off, hit the ship and dropped into the water."

Once in the water, Maclntire said, he got out of his truck, grabbed some debris from the bridge and yelled for help. The crew of the Summit Venture dropped a rope ladder and pulled him aboard.

Dr. Edgar Buren, a plastic surgeon who is treating Maclntire at St. Anthony's Hospital, said Maclntire sustained a possible sprained neck and a cut on his head and got salt water in his lungs.

"It's miraculous, absolutely miraculous that he survived," said Buren. "His injuries are on the level of a common automobile accident."

As divers pulled the first victims from the wreckage, emergency workers at Fort De Soto Park scrambled to transform a fishing pier into a makeshift morgue. It was the second time in four months that the pier assumed the grisly role.

In January, 23 Coast Guardsmen perished when their cutter Blackthorn collided with an oil tanker and sank.

"I just hope these things don't happen in threes," said John Schiffmacher, a veteran pilot who was about to take an oil tanker beneath the bridge when the accident occurred.

On the pier, St. Petersburg Fire Capt. D. A. Britner told fellow workers, "Let's bring them (the victims) in here and line them up one after another, we'll give them whatever first-aid treatment we can, and the ones we can't help will be held for the coroner's office."

The first bodies, three adults and a baby, were ferried to the pier at 10:06 a.m., and a flotilla of seaborne hearses continued their shuttles until early afternoon.

The body of a large man arrived facedown on a platform behind an Eckerd College rescue boat. He was naked from the waist up and his arms appeared bound behind his back. Ten of the 18 bodies were floating; the tide had swept one 3 1/2 miles east into Tampa Bay. The other eight bodies were found inside or near the bus.

Divers said almost the whole top of the Greyhound bus had been sheared away when it caught on jagged metal edging the bridge.

Sheriff’s officials immediately identified only one victim, apparently bus driver Michael J. Curtin, 43, of Apollo Beach. The rest bore tags saying John or Jane Doe.

Apparently the victims were thrown about their vehicles during the crash into the sea. Blood soaked through several shrouds.

Although emergency workers could not save their bodies, a half-dozen members of the clergy looked after the victims' souls.

"There's nothing you can do for the victims but say a last prayer," sighed St. Petersburg police Chaplain Donald F. Keyes. "But you have to feel for their families. It's just terrible."

Some people who feared friends or relatives might have plummeted into the bay hurried to the park.

Nursing student Gloria Peelar learned that the bridge had collapsed just after her husband left home for his painter's job in Bradenton. She was to take her final exam at St. Petersburg Junior College but she hurried home. Her husband was not there. She called his business; he was not there either.

Mrs. Peelar hurried to Fort De Soto Park, and at 11:30 she called her husband's business again. She cried and slumped against the phone booth door, and drew her hand across her face. Her husband had arrived at work safely a few minutes earlier. "I didn't know what to think," she told him.

Mr. and Mrs. Jules Berger of St. Petersburg Beach got no such solace. Wrapped in bright green blankets, they huddled beneath a picnic shelter and waited for word of their "very dear friends," Hildred and Harry Dietch, 4150 37th St. S. Both couples attended Tempel Beth El.

The Bergers knew their friends were headed toward Bradenton early Friday morning. Dietch was a shoe salesman on the way to his rounds and his wife had an 8 a.m. appointment at a favorite beauty parlor. Their daughter would fly into Tampa International Airport later Friday to join them for Mother's Day.

After making various checks, Rabbi David Susskind broke the news to the Bergers: "We have to assume they are lost." A Channel 10 reporter shoved a microphone in front of Mrs. Berger and asked, "How do you feel about this whole situation?"

As the day wore on, a collection of onlookers, reporters, police and firefighters assembled at the park. A fire truck from Lake Tarpon even made a brief appearance. Volunteer workers handed out hamburgers, coffee and doughnuts, and a variety of divers came to offer their help. Many never got into the water.

Except for brief respites of sun, the weather was foul most of the morning, and by early afternoon it turned so windy that divers were called out of the water for the rest of the day.

The last of the 18 bodies was brought to the pier at 1:02 p.m. Two more stretchers were carried ashore Friday afternoon, but they bore luggage and other items plucked from the waters around the bridge.

There was a soggy, soft-sided brown suitcase and a blue garment bag. There were shaving kits and sandals, vials of Tylenol and vitamins. There were picnic napkins and candy, a Chevrolet hubcap and even a dictionary.

A young couple who may be relatives of a victim looked through the belongings and found a familiar attache case. Hillsborough sheriff's officers would not disclose the couple's identities. Deputies searched the belongings for more clues about those who had died, but at 6 p.m. they had found names of only four or five persons, and they could not match the baggage to the bodies.

Back at the Skyway, meanwhile, two tugboats pried the slightly damaged freighter away from the base of the bridge about 90 minutes after the accident, then towed it about 500 yards west of the bridge to await repairs to its anchor-raising apparatus.

It was at about the same point that the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn went down four months ago, Coast Guard Capt. Marshall E. Gilbert said. Friday morning's crash was the third time this year that vessels passing beneath the towering bridge have run into it — a pattern that Gilbert ruefully acknowledged at a midday press conference.

"I've been here two years and I've only had reports of ships hitting the bridge three times — these three times," he told reporters.

"One of the collisions was when they had a crane that was too high. That was just negligence," Gilbert said. "The other time, the ship lost control when it was passing through the special channel we had set up after the Blackthorn."

Would he call it a coincidence? "It's strange," replied Gilbert. "It should not happen."

Authorities also fear that a 40-foot section of the bridge, which is suspended without support, may still tumble into the bay.

"In our estimation, it's going to fall; we just don't know when," a Coast Guard spokesman said.

About the reporters

Deborah Blum is the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program, a best-selling book author and the publisher of the science magazine, Undark. She left the St. Petersburg Times to get a graduate degree in science journalism. At The Sacramento Bee, she won the Pulitzer Prize in Beat Reporting in 1992 for a series of articles on ethical issues in primate research. Her most recent book, The Poison Squad, was published in 2018. In 2015, she became the fifth director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with her husband, Peter Haugen, and a rescue lab named Bongo.

Paul Tash, a young reporter at the St. Petersburg Times in May of 1980, is now the chairman and CEO of Times Publishing Company, which includes the Tampa Bay Times. Tash also chairs the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a school for journalists and media leaders, which owns Times Publishing. He has served on the boards of America’s leading journalism organizations, including the Associated Press, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Pulitzer Prizes. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and is the father of two daughters and grandfather to twins.


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