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The perpetual anxiety of driving over Tampa Bay bridges
After the bridge collapse in Baltimore, timeless worries are front of mind.
 
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is seen Tuesday, March 26, 2024 in St. Petersburg.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is seen Tuesday, March 26, 2024 in St. Petersburg. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published March 29|Updated March 29

Whenever I drive over a bridge, any bridge, but especially the long, impossibly Floridian expanses of the Howard Frankland, Courtney Campbell and Sunshine Skyway, several reliable bullet points sail into my head like ticks on a jittery PowerPoint.

  • What would happen if this thing went down? Or if an accident plunged my car over the edge?
  • Should I unlock my doors? How do I get out if the wiring short-circuits? Do I have that little hammer the oil change guys gave me to break the windshield?
  • Those who design, build and work on bridges have such a singular responsibility.
  • Life requires so much trust.

After Tuesday’s horrific collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, presumed to have killed six workers, I confessed these anxieties in a work meeting. I wondered if I was the only dreadful overthinker who regularly catastrophized life’s mundanities in a silent storm of fretting.

Nope. Plenty of others chimed in. One person had a habit of driving over bridges with her windows down for an escape hatch. Another described ruminating on ways to get a toddler out of a sinking car. Another had stashed a device to slice off a seat belt, which made me want to get a device to slice off a seat belt.

In sprawling Tampa Bay, where our hotbeds of business and leisure are separated by water, and where we lack substantial public transportation, crossing bridges in cars is largely unavoidable. Plenty of workers and students commute over bridges twice a day. Kind of like hurricanes, bridge travel is one tradeoff we make living in a grand waterfront locale.

Most of us know the joys and pitfalls of motoring over H20. We’ve gazed out at the waves during early-morning trips to the airport, clocked a dolphin in the distance, appreciated the breathtaking beauty. On the flip side, we’ve been stuck for an hour in nose-to-tail traffic, peering into the abyss, nervous, irritated, trapped.

The fall of the Sunshine Skyway happened just before my lifetime, but the lore remains inescapable more than 40 years later. The morning of May 9, 1980, a freighter caught in a storm crashed into a bridge support beam. The impact took down a 1,200-foot span of bridge and sent cars toppling into the water, killing 35 people.

If you have any awareness of the saga, it’s too easy to cross the towering Skyway and imagine the fate of those poor souls. An iconic photo of a car teetering on the edge of the wreckage, in particular, haunts me like something out of a sweaty night terror.

A car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay after the freighter Summit Venture struck the bridge during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span, May 9, 1980.
A car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay after the freighter Summit Venture struck the bridge during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span, May 9, 1980. [ JACKIE GREEN | AP ]

The Skyway accident should have served as a model for shoring up bridge safety in this country, and in some ways, it did. After the Skyway fell, engineers installed structures called dolphins to barricade errant ships; peers around the country incorporated dolphins into standard building practices. But those pricey safeguards aren’t required by law, as detailed by the Tampa Bay Times, and as more information comes out about the tragedy in Baltimore, it seems the bridge there was lacking protections. This catastrophe promises a renewed microscope on the systems that make our worlds run.

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Meanwhile? We still have to cross our bridges. For the anxious among us, experts have advice for getting out of a sinking car: Pop the seat belt, open the window, help kids out first, then get yourself into the water. It can take up to a minute for a car to sink, so there’s time to act. That’s a comforting thought.

The other reminder that eases the cognitive noise for me is this: Most of the time, even in the face of unimaginable disasters, things do go right. Traffic flows the intended way. People follow the rules. Bridges stay standing. Late or on time, blissful or annoyed, we usually get from one side to the other, water shining in the rear view.

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