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May 9, 1980 – Skyway Bridge disaster

Richard Hornbuckle’s car rests where it skidded to a stop just 14 inches from the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which was struck by the freighter Summit Venture on May 9, 1980. The freighter rammed the southbound span of the bridge, collapsing a 1,200 foot length of the bridge and sending several cars and a Greyhound bus into the water. Thirty-five people died. Tampa Bay Times photo by Dick Bell.

The original Sunshine Skyway Bridge, spanning more than four miles between St. Petersburg, Florida to Terra Ceia, opened in 1956 as a two lane road. In 1971, a second section opened, bringing the lane count to four. To many, it represented an engineering marvel, for ship captains, it became a hazard in Tampa Bay. That hazard proved deadly on this day in 1980 when the freighter MV Summit Venture collided with the bridge’s support columns during a sudden squall. The impact caused a 1,200 foot span of the bridge to collapse into the water. Six cars, a truck, and a Greyhound bus fell 150 feet into the water. The accident resulted in the deaths of 35 people.

Above: The collapsed bridge and ship shortly after the collision. Via Tampa Bay Times.

A state grnd jury and a Coast Guard investigation eventually cleared harbor pilot John Lerro of wrongdoing. Investigations determined that a microburst storm hit the freighter with torrential rains and 70 mph winds while it making a turn in the shipping channel nearing the bridge. At the time, visibility fell to nearly zero and the ship’s radar became temporarily useless. Lerro stated he ordered the ship’s engines to be put into full reverse and called for the emergency dropping of the anchor once he realized the freighter was out of the channel. It was too late.

The current bridge (top) and the old bridges. The piers of the current bridge are protected by structural dolphins. In this photo the collapsed bridge is under demolition. By Apelbaum CC BY-SA 3.0.

Skyway bridge replacement

The ship’s bow collided with two support piers, which caused the bridge section to fall into the water. While the south main pier withstood the ship’s initial strike without major damage, a secondary pier not designed to withstand such an impact failed completely. A new bridge with a shipping canal 50 percent wider than the old structure later took the place of the Skyway. It opened in 1987, three years before demolition of the Skyway bridge took place. The new bridge holds the same formal name as the old, the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

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