Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge Disaster

A Question of Randomness

Written by Robert A. Waters

Humans are designed for introspection. When a tragedy occurs, we want to know why. But sometimes the reasons can be so complex as to be thought random. The 1980 collapse of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay is an example. Many inquests were held, but, in the end, investigators concluded that the disaster was “an act of God.”

On May 8, John Calloway, 19, boarded a Greyhound bus in Alabama. A student at Tuskegee Institute, he planned to spend the summer with his family in Miami. Shortly after 7:30 on the morning of the 9th, the Greyhound began its climb up the Skyway. As it approached the summit, Calloway likely noticed the darkening sky, the driving rain, the bus shaking as hurricane gusts pounded the bridge.

Jim Pryor, an engineer, crossed the bridge every week-day morning to go to work in Bradenton, 45 miles from his home near St. Petersburg. A family man with a wife and three children, on that morning he drove part-way toward Bradenton, then recalled that he had forgotten a lawn mower needed at his business. He turned around and headed back home. Throwing the mower into the trunk of his car, Pryor headed out again. Normally, at 7:34, he would have been at his workplace and settling into his office, but today he was on the Skyway bridge.

Wesley MacIntire was also en route to his job. Decades before, he had been the lone survivor of another tragedy. Bill DeYoung, who penned a book on the Skyway collapse, wrote, “On June 6, 1944, during the Allied invasion at Normandy, MacIntire’s landing craft came under attack; he was the only one not killed.” On this morning, high up on the bridge, winds shook his Ford Courier pickup and the rain blinded his view of the road.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge bridge had been constructed to allow vessels of any size to pass underneath it. That morning, the Summit Venture, headed for Tampa, was loaded with 20,000 tons of phosphate.  As the storm intensified, the ship was blown off-course and struck one of the pilings. Above, a thirteen-hundred-foot span of the bridge collapsed.

The storm had swept out of nowhere. DeYoung wrote, “[The storm] wasn’t supposed to be there. Yet there it was, a squall of such intensity that visibility on Tampa Bay was reduced to practically zero, the wind gusts up to 70-75 miles per hour, hurricane force, a solid wall of blinding rain blown horizontally against the ship’s wheelhouse windows, swirling and angry and changing direction in an instant.” Weather experts studying nearby Doppler radars later concluded that a violent weather phenomenon called a microburst had been present in the squall and added to its fierceness.

150 feet above, drivers were unable to see the collapsing structure.

Eight vehicles and a Greyhound bus plummeted into the water. Thirty-five souls perished, including 26 on the bus.

John Calloway, the teenage student, died. He was later pulled from the bus and identified.

Jim Pryor also died. Divers found him still in his car. On normal days, he would have already been at work when the storm arrived.

Wesley MacIntire survived. As his truck spun off the bridge, he said he slammed on his brakes, but by that time he was in mid-air. As it fell, MacIntire’s pickup grazed the hull of the Summit Venture, then plunged into the water and quickly sank to the bottom. With all the force he could muster, he wrenched open a damaged door, swam for the dim light he saw above, and burst to the surface just in time. The crew of the stricken ship rescued him.

A random tragedy? An “act of God?” Why did 35 people die while one did not? A lone car skidded to a halt exactly one foot from the edge of the collapsed bridge. Was it luck that the driver survived? A series of lengthy investigations concluded that no one could have prevented the catastrophe. Lawsuits brought against the ship’s owners and the state of Florida were thrown out of court because no one was determined to be at blame.

Florida author Bill DeYoung wrote an excellent series of articles about the Skyway's collapse published in St. Pete Catalyst, a modern news magazine. He also penned a book about the tragedy entitled, Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge Collapse and the Man Who Brought it Down. I highly recommend both the book and the Catalyst story.