ST. PETERSBURG — The twin golden spires of the Sunshine Skyway bridge meet at the entrance of Tampa Bay, forming our most iconic symbol.
It also marks our greatest tragedy.
It was 39 years ago that the storm-blinded freighter Summit Venture crashed into the support columns of the old Sunshine Skyway bridge, causing a 1,200-foot span of the bridge to collapse into the bay.
At 7:33 a.m., 35 lives were lost. They died in the six cars, truck and Greyhound bus that fell 150 feet into the water below.
The bus took 26 lives. Nine people died in the other vehicles.
Only one person survived the fall: Wesley MacIntire, 56. The Gulfport man’s blue Ford Courier pickup truck fell onto the ship before it entered the water, allowing him to escape his vehicle and swim to the surface.
The youngest victim was 7-month old Manesha McGarrah, who died with her mother Wanda McGarrah, 24. They both got on the bus in Tallahassee.
The oldest was Gerda Hedquist, 92, of Charlotte Harbor.
The Tampa Bay area was already reeling from a deadly incident that took place in those very waters beneath the bridge 102 days earlier. The Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn collided nearly head-on with an oil tanker on Jan. 28, 1980.
The 180-foot buoy tender was leaving the bay when it crashed into the 605-foot Capricorn as it entered the bay. The Coast Guard vessel survived — but then the tanker’s anchor suddenly gashed the smaller vessel’s hull.
The Blackthorn sank in 10 minutes, killing 23 guardsmen — nearly half the crew were trapped as it sank in 40-feet of water. It is considered the Coast Guard’s deadliest peacetime disaster, one blamed on an inexperienced officer navigating an unfamiliar and difficult channel.
Three months later, the Sunshine Skyway disaster would also be caused by a vessel trying to navigate the difficult channel into Tampa Bay.
In 2000, a St. Petersburg Times article by Jean Heller described how the disaster unfolded:
Capt. John Lerro was the harbor pilot trying to guide the freighter Summit Venture, a ship two football fields long, into the 58.4-mile channel that leads to the Port of Tampa. It is a long and treacherous channel thanks to the shallow depth of the bay and Florida’s unpredictable weather.
The freighter was already dealing with fog when it was hit by 60 mph, tropical-storm force winds and blinding rain.
The radar went down, too, when Lerro had to decide when to turn the Summit Venture between two of the Skyway’s main piers as the storm hid the ship’s bow from its pilot.
On the bridge, Lerro considered his options. Visibility was terrible. There was also a ship leaving the bay approaching. Unable to track the approaching ship Pure Oil, the pilot judged it too risky to turn out of the shipping channel — what if he turned into the path of the oncoming ship?
If he tried to bring the Summit Venture to a halt, the winds could cause the freighter to lose control and fling it into the bridge.
The best course, Lerro decided, was to get the Summit Venture safely between the bridge’s pillars. But he misjudged the winds, unaware that a squall had changed the direction of the wind, pushing the freighter out of the channel and off-course. The vessel was also empty, riding high on the waves.
A minute before impact, the skies cleared just enough for Lerro to see the Sunshine Skyway before him. Despite a flurry of last-second maneuvers, it was too late.
At 7:33 a.m., the bow of the Summit Venture struck bridge pier 2S. The pier came down, and so did Interstate 275 above it during rush hour.
Lerro radioed the Coast Guard for help:
“Get emergency . . . all the emergency equipment out to the Skyway bridge. Vessel has just hit the Skyway bridge. The Skyway bridge is down! Get all emergency equipment out to the Skyway bridge. The Skyway bridge is down. This is Mayday. Emergency situation. (Nearly screaming) Stop the traffic on that Skyway bridge!”
A state inquiry later cleared Lerro of negligence. The Coast Guard found that his decision to sail in zero visibility contributed to the crash.
Yet many factors were found to be beyond the pilot’s control: The storm that blinded the ship was not forecast; Lerro had no idea the oncoming tanker had anchored and was no longer a threat; a passing pilot never warned Lerro about the storm.
In 1984, MacIntire reached a settlement with the Summit Venture’s owner for $175,000.
The new Sunshine Skyway bridge — officially the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway bridge, named after the former governor and U.S. senator — opened on April 20, 1987.
Ships still pass beneath the bridge to enter Tampa Bay and reach Port Tampa Bay, but this Skyway is designed specifically to avoid the calamity that took place 38 years ago.
The Summit Venture later changed hands several times. It sank as the Jian Mao 9 off the coast of Vietnam in 2010.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
The 35 victims of the 1980 Sunshine Skyway Bridge Disaster:
Michael Curtin, 43, of Apollo Beach
Duane Adderly, 21, of Miami
Louis Lucas Jr., 62, of Dolomite, Ala.
Yvonne Johnson, 22, of Perrine
Manesha McGarrah, 7 months, of Tallahassee
Wanda McGarrah, 24, of Tallahassee
Sharon Dixon, 21, of Miami
Myrtle Brown, 58, of St. Johns, Newfoundland
Willis Brown, 57, of St. Johns, Newfoundland
Aubrey Hudson, 62, of St. Johns, Newfoundland
Phyllis Hudson, 58, of St. Johns, Newfoundland
John Carlson, 47, of Pinellas Park
Doris Carlson, 42, of Pinellas Park
Tawana McClendon, 20, of Palmetto
Charles Collins, 40, of Tampa
Leslie Coleman Jr., 52, of St. Petersburg
James Pryor, 42, of Seminole
John Callaway Jr., 19, of Miami
Horace Lemmons, 47, of Kings Mountain, N.C.
Gerda Hedquist, 92, of Charlotte Harbor
Louise Johnson, 59, of Cataula, Ga.
Melborne Russell, 38, of Chicago, Iill.
Robert Harding, 63, of Glens Falls, N.Y.
Alphonso Blidge, 22, of Miami
Marguerite Mathison, 82, of St. Petersburg
Sandra Davis, 34, of Boardman
Hildred Dietch, 73, of St. Petersburg
Harry Dietch, 68, of St. Petersburg
Lillian Loucks, 69, of Winnipeg, Manitoba
Ann Pondy, 57, of Winnipeg, Manitoba
Brenda Green, 19, of Miami
Delores Smith, 50, of Pennsville, N.J.
Robert Smith, 37, of Pennsville, N.J.
Laverne Daniels, 20, of Miami
Woodrow Triplett, 33, of Bainbridge, Ga.