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 was opened, bringing the lane count to four. For many, it was a thing of engineering beauty, for ship captains, it became a hazard as they navigated Tampa Bay. It was on this day in 1980 that the freighter MV Summit Venture collided with the bridge’s support columns during a sudden squall, causing a 1,200 foot span of the bridge to collapse into Tampa Bay. Six cars, a truck, and a Greyhound bus fell 150 feet into the water, resulting in the deaths of 35 people.
Harbor pilot John Lerro was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by both a state grand jury and a Coast Guard investigation. It was determined that a microburst storm hit the freighter with torrential rains and 70 mph while it was making a turn in the shipping channel nearing the bridge. Visibility was cut to nearly zero and the ship’s radar became temporarily useless. Lerro stated that 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, but it was too late.
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 that was struck was was not designed to withstand such an impact and failed completely. In the aftermath of the event a new bridge, with a shipping canal 50 percent wider than the old structure, was built. It opened in 1987 and the old bridges were demolished in 1990.