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Monday marks 42 years since the Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapse

A freighter crashed into the bridge during a storm on May 9, 1980.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was "a monsoon-like morning."

That's how the late Pat Leisner, a journalist who spent decades covering Florida's biggest stories – including the opening of Walt Disney World – described the scene of the May 9, 1980 collapse of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

It was the perfect storm: 60 mph wind gusts, near-zero visibility and punishing rain.

"The storm had been so ominous," transportation inspector Joe Blasewitz, who crossed the bridge minutes before the tragedy, recalled in an archived interview with the Associated Press. "It had blown through and everything was overcast."

Blinded by the storm, the wind-blown 19,734-ton Summit Venture crashed into a support column of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge just after 7:30 a.m. The 609-foot ship's impact sent a 1,200 to 1,400 foot span plunging 15 stories into Tampa Bay.

It was morning rush hour. Six cars, a truck and a Greyhound bus fell into the water.

Thirty-five people died. Twenty-six of them were aboard the bus.

The youngest victim was a baby. The oldest was 92.

One man, Wesley MacIntire, survived the fall. His pickup bounced off the freighter's bow, and the crew pulled him to safety. He later died of cancer.

The ship had been guided by Harbor pilot John Lerro, who was helping it make the 40-mile trek from the Gulf of Mexico to what was then known as the Port of Tampa. A blinding squall had knocked out the ship's radar.

As Leisner wrote in the AP, Lerro was attempting the guide the ship through an 800-foot opening beneath the bridge, but he missed.

John “Chip” Callaway Jr., who was 19 at the time, was one of those killed in the collapse. His friend, Lynwood Armstrong, had gotten off the bus one stop before it crossed the bridge.

“When I saw them pulling up the bodies and the bus later and saw the number on the side of the bus I knew that was the one I got off," Armstrong previously told 10 Tampa Bay.

As recounted a couple years ago on the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, Armstrong began calling Callaway’s mother annually ever since.

The Skyway's old northbound span was converted for two-way traffic until the opening of the current bridge in 1987. Engineers built the new bridge in a "better" location, raised its height to make it easier for ships to pass under and added almost three dozen bumpers called "dolphin" structures to protect the bridge from any future ship's impact.

The old bridge was demolished, but construction crews kept both ends. Those ends are now the fishing piers seen today.

A memorial sits on the Pinellas County side, recognizing the lives of those who died.

“The Skyway Bridge Disaster,” a documentary detailing the Skyway collapse, premiered in 2019. Filmmakers Frankie Vandeboe and Steve Yerrid detailed what happened after the crash, including the "courtroom drama" that ensued.

The Associated Press and 10 Tampa Bay's Jillian Olsen contributed to this report.

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