ST. PETERSBURG ― It was 40 years ago — Friday, May 9, 1980 — that fog, rain and 60-mph tropical-storm force winds caused freighter pilot John Lerro to crash the Summit Venture into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
A 1,200-foot span of the southbound bridge collapsed.
Six cars, a truck and Greyhound bus fell into the water, killing 35.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, the stories of residents and key players were part of the tragic tale unfolding in newspaper articles.
Forty years later, these are some of the more memorable:
She is considered the last person to drive southbound on the original Skyway bridge before the accident.
Elizabeth McCoy was a teacher who drove the bridge five days a week to get to and from Bradenton’s H.S. Moody Elementary School.
The St. Petersburg resident dropped her coins into the bridge’s toll box a little after 7:30 a.m. on May 9, according to Times archives, and, as she drove her aqua 1971 Cadillac across, passed a slow-moving yellow car.
The freighter hit the bridge moments later, but she was unaware of the accident until she arrived at school and was greeted by colleagues and students worried she’d perished.
Later, she’d see photos of that yellow vehicle being pulled from the water.
McCoy died in 2006 at the age of 84, according to her obituary, and was survived by four children and two grandchildren.
She thought he was dead.
Gloria Peelar’s husband, Aaron, crossed the bridge every workday from their St. Petersburg home to his job as a painter tech in Bradenton.
He drove a yellow car with a black top, the description of a vehicle that had fallen into the water, Peelar told the Times last month, and he had not arrived at work when she called.
Peelar drove to Fort De Soto Park, where a makeshift morgue was set up. She looked at two bodies “but decided I couldn’t do it anymore” and returned home. She called her husband’s work again.
He was there. He’d arrived hours late because of the traffic caused by the bridge collapse.
“Only a few cars were ahead of his,” Peelar said. “That’s how close it was.”
Today, she is 64 and he is 71. They still reside in St. Petersburg, have two adult children and have been married for 43 years.
“I think about that day all the time,” she said. “That was the day I almost lost my husband.”
He was the sole survivor of the tragedy.
Wesley MacIntire, a Gulfport resident, was driving across the bridge when the Summit Venture smashed into the southbound span.
The World War II veteran’s truck fell, but bounced off the bow of the ship and into the water. He was pulled from the water by the ship’s crew.
MacIntire suffered just a cut on the head and water in his lungs, but the survivor’s guilt never healed, his family told the Times upon his death from bone cancer in 1989 at the age of 65.
Every year until he died, MacIntire drove to the bridge on its anniversary and saluted those who did not survive.
He drove the car that stopped just before the bridge collapsed.
Paul Hornbuckle’s Buick came to a screeching halt 14 inches from the “severed edge of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge,” read his obituary in 2000 when he died at the age of 80.
After making it to safety, Hornbuckle ran back to his car to shut the doors.
“It seems crazy now,” he once told reporters, according to his obituary. “But at the time I kept thinking my car would blow away if the doors were open.”
He never drove over the Skyway again.
Today, the bridge bears his name — the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Graham was Florida’s governor when the bridge collapsed.
Some wanted to repair it. Others wanted to replace it with a tunnel under the bay.
Graham successfully pushed for the new $244 million cable bridge that opened in 1987.
“This was an opportunity to build a bridge that was not only safer but also a symbol of Tampa Bay,” Graham, 83 and of Miami Lakes, told the Times in April.
He served two terms as governor and then as a U.S. senator from 1987 to 2005.
“Whenever I drive across the bridge and get to the top,” Graham said, “I honk my horn as a statement of our pride in the bridge.”
He defended the captain who crashed the freighter into the Skyway.
Steve Yerrid was planning a three-day weekend at the beach when he received a call at home from the Holland & Knight law firm, where he worked at the time.
“They said, ‘The only place you are going is to the office. The bridge got hit,'" Yerrid, 70, said recently.
Just hours after the accident, Yerrid said, they’d been asked to either defend the pilot, John Lerro, or prosecute him on behalf of the state.
“I wanted to take the pilot,” said Yerrid, who now runs the Yerrid Law Firm in Tampa. “He is the one who needed us.”
Florida state officials absolved Lerro and reinstated his license after it was initially suspended.
Yerrid successfully used the “Act of God," defense, saying the storm came fast and without warning, making it impossible for Lerro to navigate around the bridge.
Yerrid went on to gain further fame, in part, by helping Florida reach a record settlement in its landmark 1990s lawsuit against major tobacco companies.
But the Lerro case was his defining moment, Yerrid said, “because no one but my mother said we could win and she only said it out of love, not because she really believed it.”
The Summit Venture
It is the freighter that crashed into the Skyway Bridge.
Built in 1976, the Summit Venture was repaired and changed hands several times after the crash, according to the Times archives, before sinking off the coast of Vietnam in 2010 under the name Jian Mao 9.
It made several returns to the area over the years.
In 1990, it was ordered to leave Port Tampa Bay because it was docked too close to a fire there.
“Several port workers, leaning against a nearby pickup truck, couldn’t resist the irony of seeing the Summit Venture move out of Seddon Channel during Monday’s fire,” read a Tampa Tribune article on the incident.
He is the pilot who crashed the Summit Venture into the Skyway Bridge.
John Lerro, who lived in Tampa, was acquitted, but he lived with guilt until he died in 2002 at the age of 59 due to complications of multiple sclerosis.
“He never forgave himself,” his widow, Roswitha Lerro, told the Times in 2002. “I hope he found forgiveness for himself in the end. He was an incredibly kind man.”
After the accident, a brief return as a harbor pilot was halted by the onset of multiple sclerosis. Suffering from depression, Lerro took up counseling of criminals and rape victims and volunteering at a suicide hotline.
A few months before his death, Lerro took a ride aboard Yerrid’s boat with their mutual friend Wade Boggs, the baseball great. 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.”