Argue if you like, but the Skyway Bridge disaster remains the biggest breaking news story in the history of Tampa Bay.
We have had close calls with hurricanes. We have lifted the Stanley Cup and Super Bowl trophies. We have witnessed the long-term consequences of less dramatic events, like the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. (For the record, I was not here then.)
Over the last two months, the coronavirus has claimed more lives in our region, and it has caused incalculable economic chaos. But this pandemic is washing over the entire globe. The collapse of the Skyway is unique to the story of Tampa Bay.
For all of us living here, the morning of May 9, 1980, was as searing as 9/11 would be to New York and Washington. I was a reporter, early in my career at this newspaper. The memories were still vivid when I wrote this account 25 years later, and they remain just as sharp today.
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On that morning 25 years ago, I stood on the southern beach of Fort De Soto Park, a young reporter with a borrowed pair of binoculars trained toward the Sunshine Skyway, waiting for the clouds to lift.
My editor had rousted me from the shower with a phone call just after 7:30. The skies outside my house were raining nearly as hard as the shower head inside. There was a report that a ship had hit the bridge and there were cars in the water, my boss said. Get going.
At Fort De Soto, emergency crews were setting up what they described hopefully as a “rescue base” as the storm started to break. But when the winds finally blew the clouds off the bridge, they also dispelled those hopes. A quarter-mile section of the southbound span just past the crest of the bridge was simply gone, collapsed into the sea.
My mind was slow to reconcile what my eyes were reporting. Perhaps some optical illusion was at work. I put down the binoculars, rubbed my eyes and looked again. The freighter Summit Venture sat beneath the Skyway, wearing debris from the bridge across its bow like a mark of shame.
The old Skyway was a local fixture that had carried countless travelers across the mouth of Tampa Bay, though the bridge had a kind of Erector Set quality. There were two spans, built separately, each with a metal superstructure spanning its arch.
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At the peak of the bridge, the roadway changed from concrete to a metal grid, like a drawbridge, and the tires on your car would rumble and shimmy slightly as you drove across. If you looked straight down, you could see through the spaces in the metal to the water below. It could have been any one of us on the Skyway that morning.
As the day wore on, divers started bringing bodies to shore. The victims died violently when their cars and a bus slammed into the sea. As one body was carried past me, a piece of the person’s brain slipped from beneath the tarp and onto my shoe.
Meanwhile, families who knew their relatives were headed south that morning also gathered at Fort De Soto, where their panic yielded to the raw, wailing grief of sudden loss. “How do you feel about this whole situation?” a television reporter asked friends of a married couple who had died.
In those days before laptop computers and cell phones, I called the city desk from a pay phone and started dictating my dispatch. My friend Celia, the chief clerk, was taking down my words when tears overtook her. “How can you not be crying?” she asked me, both in wonder and reproach.
For reporters, duty can provide some detachment from the trauma of events unfolding before us. When the hijacked jets crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, I felt lucky to be working in a newsroom, because we knew what we were supposed to do: cover the news. But once deadlines have passed, that professional insulation dissolves, leaving us to face what we already have seen.
The night after the Skyway collapsed, I had a recurring dream: I was driving across the bridge in a blinding storm, seeing only the windshield wipers rocking back and forth. I would climb the bridge across the crest, and each time, the screen would go blank.
Paul Tash is the editor and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times. In May of 1980, he was a 25-year-old reporter on the Times’ city desk.