For many years, I had a recurring dream about driving across a ribbon-thin road that stretched across the open ocean. On either side, I remember, there was nothing, no buildings, no billboards, no trees, nothing. Just a drop-off into cold, silver-blue water. In the dream, I had a sense of purpose in continuing forward, as if stopping even for a second would be disastrous. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know where I was going.
Periodically, inexplicably, the oceanic highway would rise up, sloping higher and higher over the water, until I was almost driving in the clouds. Still, I continued.
It was always frightening. Tellingly, I never saw another car. This was a journey that I took alone.
Looking back, I wonder if this dream, which I’d had since I was in my 20s, was the spark that ignited my passion for the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which spans 15 miles of Lower Tampa Bay. Over open water.
I was born and raised in St. Petersburg, and the Skyway was something you saw, and experienced, all the time. I don’t recall thinking too much about it one way or the other, except that at its highest point, 150 feet over the bay, it was scary. As a kid, as a teen, as an adult, I always got a little queasy when I reached the top and looked out across the bay.
On the morning of May 9, 1980, a 606-foot freighter coming into Tampa Bay was caught in a violent squall that materialized virtually out of nowhere, and sent it crashing into one of the Skyway’s high support piers. Nearly 1,300 feet of roadway collapsed, and seven vehicles, including a Greyhound bus, fell from the highest point. Thirty five people died.
It was, and is, the worst ship/bridge disaster in American history, and one of the blackest days Florida’s ever experienced. I remembered it only too well.
Now, I’ve been a professional writer and editor for more than three decades, and by and large, I am an entertainment journalist. I write a lot about music and musicians, and I suppose I always assumed that were I to “do” a book, it would be on that subject.
At the end of 2008, for reasons I can’t quite remember, I was thinking about the Skyway collapse. Online, I read every commemorative anniversary story, and with each successive piece, I noticed that some of the “facts” changed. The passage of time was blurring history.
This drove me crazy. What really happened? Stunned by the misinformation that had become “legend,” I began to dig deeper. Soon I got pretty familiar with the principal characters, especially John Lerro, the harbor pilot who’d been in command of the ship.
In Lerro, I found a protagonist right out of a Shakespearean tragedy. Here was a man who was simply doing his job, and over the course of two minutes – for that was all it took – his life, his world, everything he knew, came crashing down.
Of course, I never forgot those 35 poor souls whose lives were lost. But I found myself coming back, again and again, to John Lerro. Even after all these years, the perception remained that he was somehow a villain, a drunk, a loser. At the very least, a lousy pilot.
He was, I discovered, none of those things.
It took nearly three years to research and write Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down. “What makes you think you can do this?” I kept asking myself. “You’re an entertainment writer. This is serious stuff.”
And now, without getting too precious about it, I feel as if I’ve contributed something to Florida history. I’ve written a pretty good nonfiction narrative, and hopefully encouraged people to reconsider one man’s lost reputation.
Where did it come from? I’ve learned not to question the Muse. But I’ll tell you this: I don’t have that dream anymore.
Bill DeYoung is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down. He lives in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife Amy, three cats, and a room full of Beatles records. He has been a journalist for 35 years and was Arts & Entertainment Editor of the Gainesville Sun for two decades. He is currently working at Connect Savannah as A & E Editor and Senior Writer. He is well known for his music and entertainment journalism, and his essays have been included on more than 100 CDs.