By JP Chartier
If you follow Interstate 275 south through the city of St. Petersburg, Florida until you run out of land, you’ll be greeted by a gentle slope of road that seemingly rises from the waters of the Tampa Bay. This magnificent structure made of concrete and steel is known as The Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and its history is as interesting as the bridge is beautiful.
To some, a bridge is simply a structure that provides passage over an obstacle such as water, but to me a bridge is so much more than that. Not only are they marvels of engineering, they are works of art, and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is no exception!
The bridge you see today is actually a second incarnation of the bridge. The original bridge, which resembled a child’s erector set, opened on September 6, 1954 at a cost of $22 million. It carried two lanes of I-275/US 19 traffic over the Tampa Bay, between Bradenton and St. Petersburg, in west central Florida. Before 1954 motorist had to take a ferry.
A CREEPY HISTORY
1980 would prove to be a catastrophic year for the original Skyway Bridge. First, in January of the year, a Coast Guard buoy tender (a type of boat) named Blackthorn collided with the oil tanker SS Capricorn less than a mile from the bridge, killing 23 sailors in what would be the worst ever peacetime disaster in Coast Guard history.
Then a mere 4 months after the Coast Guard disaster, on May 9, 1980 the unthinkable happens
Blinded by rain and blown off course by 60 mph winds, and with their electronics not working correctly, the pilot of the Summit Venture, John Lerro, makes the fateful decision to continue navigating the 609 ft. phosphate freighter towards the Skyway Bridge.
The shipping lanes of the Tampa Bay are known to be tricky, but he’s done this several times before, but never in these conditions. The freighter is empty so it’s riding high in the water, making it that much easier for the wind to wreak havoc and blow it off course.
The bridge comes into view momentarily before disappearing altogether in the driving rain and fog, so Lerro sends a man on deck to try and get a visual before going under the bridge, but it would prove to be too little, too late. What the deckhand notices is that they are about to plow into a pillar of the Skyway Bridge and there isn’t anything they can do!
FOURTEEN INCHES FROM DEATH
Up above on the bridge at this time, Dick Hornbuckle and his three passengers are on their way to work, the bad weather has Hornbuckle extra cautious so he’s reduced his speed to about 25 mph.
The three men in the car watch as a Greyhound bus slowly passes them just as the wind and rain really start to pick up, and as they clear the hump of the bridge in Hornbuckle’s 1976 Skylark they notice that the bus has just vanished, nowhere to be seen!
Just as they were trying to understand what was going on, they noticed that part of the bridges superstructure was missing up ahead! So he slams on the brakes, his car starts to slide sideways but finally comes to a stop 14” from the edge! The famous picture below shows just how close they were from certain death.
The Summit Venture had just collided with the Skyway Bridge knocking down 1,260 ft of the span in the process. Six cars, a truck and a Greyhound bus go over the edge and plunge 150 ft into the dark and mangled mess of metal below in the spooky, shark infested waters.
Thirty-five people had just lost their lives
Miraculously, one man, Wesley MacIntyre, survived the plunge. Luckily his truck first landed on the freighter below before bouncing off and into the water where he was able to swim to safety.
John Lerro, the man piloting the Summit Venture was eventually found ‘not guilty’ in the disaster, the fault was placed on the terrible weather.
RISING FROM THE RUINS
After the collision, the undamaged side of the original span was reopened for traffic going both directions while the new Skyway bridge was being built. It took over 5 years and $244 million to complete the new safer bridge, and was opened in 1987.
In its special on the Top 10 Bridges in the World, the Travel Channel rated the Sunshine Skyway #3.
THE SKYWAY NATIONAL PARK
There is a Skyway National Park, something I’ve been unaware of for all the years I’ve lived in Florida. The park is actually the old approaches to the original span, and is the longest fishing pier in the world.
The piers, which are mainly used for fishing, are lit at night and are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is a $4 per vehicle charge which is good all day and night.
Here are a few of the more popular types of fish that can be caught here: pompano, red snapper, sheephead, cobia, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, black sea bass, grouper, tarpon and snook.
Both piers have a small store where you can purchase fishing supplies, bait, snacks and drinks.
As with many of the bridges around the world, the Skyway has its share of suicide jumpers. Since its opening in 1954 there have been 265 people that have jumped from the bridge, of which 229 have unofficially died. There have been 5 suicides already this year (2014). The Skyway Bridge is the #4 suicide bridge in the United States.
Here are a few of the particulars concerning the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge:
*Design – continuous pre-stressed concrete cable-stayed bridge
*Total Length – 4.1 miles
*Width – 94 ft
*Height – 431 ft
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge isn’t a destination per say, but it is well worth a look if you’re in the Tampa Bay area. After driving over the span, stop at one of the piers for some of the states best fishing!
What are some of your favorite/scariest/highest bridges that you’ve been across?
At Gutter Pup Adventures.com you can expect to read well-written and entertaining articles about the people and places that often get overlooked at many popular vacation destinations around the world.