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35 years later, a monument honors lives lost in Sunshine Skyway collapse (w/video)

Tthe Sunshine Skyway bridge wasstruck by the freighter Summit Venture in St. Petersburg on May 9, 1980. The freighter rammed the southbound span of the bridge, sending several cars and a Greyhound bus into the water. Thirty-five people died. [Times files (1980)]
Published May 10, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG

Charles McGarrah vividly remembers the day he met the woman who would become his wife — and her first words:

"My name is Wanda Smith, and I will not live to see my 25th birthday."

McGarrah was inclined to argue with her. But just six short years later, she died three months shy of her 25th birthday.

She and the couple's 7-month-old daughter, Ma­Nisha, died with 33 other people in a horrific accident that sent them plunging from the Sunshine Skyway when a freighter struck the bridge. On Saturday, 35 years to the day of the accident, a monument was dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives that day.

"My healing definitely starts today," said Belinda Jackson, who was 11 when her mother, Sandra Davis, died. "I will now have a feeling of closure, of remembrance, of peace."

The monument was the brainchild of Bill DeYoung, who was 21 at the time of the accident. DeYoung, of St. Petersburg, wrote a book about the disaster and then embarked on a fundraising venture to erect the monument.

The 6-foot-tall monument is at water's edge next to the Blackthorn Memorial Park on the northern side of the current Skyway. It overlooks the shipping channel in which the Summit Venture was traveling when it hit the Skyway on that rainy, windy and foggy morning of May 9, 1980.

The span collapsed, sending a Greyhound bus, six cars and a pickup into the bay. One man, Wesley MacIntire, survived when his blue pickup fell onto the ship before hitting the water. He managed to escape his vehicle and swim to the surface where he was rescued by the crew of the Summit Venture. The nine people in the cars and the 26 people on the bus all died.

McGarrah, who had put his wife and daughter on the bus the evening before in Tallahassee, heard news of the accident on his car radio. He wasn't concerned because he had been told the bus was headed to Fort Lauderdale via Jacksonville.

He said he thought, "Wow, that was a terrible accident. I didn't think anything more of it."

Later, when the phone rang at home, he thought it was his wife calling to say she and MaNisha had arrived safely at her mother's. But it wasn't. It was one of her sisters asking if Mrs. McGarrah had missed the bus because she had not arrived. McGarrah said he thought they were teasing him because he could hear laughter in the background.

He told them to let him talk to his wife, saying, "She's there. I know she's there."

When he realized his wife had not arrived, "my heart sank," he said. He made calls and soon received a call back from a law enforcement official who asked what his wife and daughter had been wearing. MaNisha, the officer said, had been found. She could be identified by the jumpsuit with the yellow sunflower and her braided hair with the pink ribbons that her father had dressed her in.

It took two weeks to find Mrs. McGarrah's body.

"My life was forever changed," McGarrah said. He said he "agonized" for years over his decision not to go with them on the trip.

But gradually, McGarrah said he healed and was able to go on with his life. But he never forgets, he said, and never will. For him, May 9 is as unforgettable as Dec. 7 is to an earlier generation.

Contact Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450. Follow @alindbergtimes.

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