Jack Roberts, Sunshine Skyway project engineer, dies at 73

Published May 24, 2012

VALRICO — May 9, 1980, was one of the few days Jack Roberts was running late for work. He stepped out of an elevator to find two grim-faced colleagues waiting for him.

Roberts, who then lived in Tallahassee, was the state's top engineer in charge of the maintenance and repair of bridges. On the way to the office of the secretary of transportation, one of them broke the news: A span of the Sunshine Skyway bridge had collapsed.

Much of Mr. Roberts' life had involved the bridge. He was just 28 in 1966 when the Florida Department of Transportation had made him project engineer of the second Skyway bridge. That southbound span complemented the original two-way bridge, which opened in 1954.

Later that morning in 1980, Mr. Roberts saw the ruins of the Skyway from a helicopter. The freighter that had hit the bridge sat at an angle. Steel archways to the bridge lay in the water 150 feet below, leaving a large hole through which 35 people had plunged to their deaths.

Worse, it was the southbound bridge the Summit Venture hit.

His bridge.

"Shock hit him," said Rosalee Roberts, his wife of 26 years. "He said he thought, 'What kind of monster have I built that did this?' "

Mr. Roberts was a Plant City native, the fifth of six children in a poor family. He graduated from Plant City High and went to work for the DOT, starting as a clerk typist, then as a survey party chief. After a stint in the Army National Guard he returned to the department, where he was assigned to bridge projects in Pinellas County.

That work led to his assignment as project engineer for the southbound Skyway span.

He was eventually promoted to supervise the construction of all roads and bridges in the state. In 1987, Mr. Roberts began a second career with Volkert, Inc., an engineering firm based in Mobile, Ala.

"By nature he was competitive. Jack always aspired to the next position up," said Keith King, a former Volkert CEO who remains chairman of the board. "He put in a lot of effort, and his results were always very good."

He supervised construction of many Volkert projects in the Tampa Bay area.

Mr. Roberts was married twice. Despite his hours, he never missed one of his children's baseball games or other performances, his wife said.

"He would leave work, cheer the boys on and go back to work until 2 or 3 a.m. if required," said Rosalee Roberts, 52.

In 2006, Volkert promoted Mr. Roberts to chief operating officer for the Florida region. Those plans were derailed when he suffered a head injury in a fall that year.

Mr. Roberts died May 13, nearly two weeks after undergoing heart surgery. He was 73.

Though the Skyway disaster haunted him, he had made peace with it. "It took him a little while to admit," his wife said. " 'My bridge did not fall. It was knocked down.' "

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Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.