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Movie recreates Skyway tragedy

The 50-minute docudrama, which depicts the 1980 collapse of the bridge debuts at a Clearwater theater.

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Christian Knightly, 19, began writing the script for The Fallen Sky in April 2000 while he was a student at Clearwater High School.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 19, 2002

CLEARWATER -- Christian Knightly already has type-cast himself.

At the age of 19.

Knightly premieres his third disaster film, The Fallen Sky, at 7:30 tonight at the Royalty Theater. This one is a 50-minute docudrama' centering on the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway bridge in 1980, when the 606-foot freighter Summit Venture, piloted by John Lerro, rammed into a bridge pier, killing 35.

"I've always kind of liked disasters," said Knightly, who has been making movies since he was 8 years old. He has already released a film on the fateful first voyage of the Titanic. He is currently editing a film about tidal waves that besiege Clearwater. "What intrigues me the most is the little human stories lost in these big catastrophes."

Like the story of Wesley MacIntire, whose 1974 blue Ford Courier pickup fell onto Summit Venture and then rolled into the water. Knightly is amazed MacIntire survived. His story, among others, is told in the The Fallen Sky.

Knightly began writing the script in April of 2000 while a student at Clearwater High School. He finished it later that fall after input from his friends and his mother, Esther. Next, Knightly began planning his film, from drawing scenes to setting shots. He had a cork board filled with scenes before he began filming.

Drawings are nice, but getting it to film is another story.

Knightly had to recreate the film's most focal centerpiece, the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

But how can a teenager on a shoestring budget recreate the collapse of a massive bridge?

"I dug up my parents' backyard," Knightly said. "I bet they liked that."

Actually, they didn't mind.

"He came up with ideas with the things he wanted to build," his father, Thomas, said. "I said if it was possible, and if it was impossible. We built the stern section of the Titanic in the garage, and we sunk it in our neighbor's pool. We've had fun building all sorts of things."

Knightly reconstructed a scale version of the bridge in his back yard. He poured cement in the ground to create a foundation. He added water and even built a model of the Summit Venture. This isn't toothpicks and G.I. Joes, here.

The bridge was 10-feet high and 20-feet long.

It took nine months to build the bridge, Knightly said. He spent every second away from his senior year at Clearwater High School working on it.

It tumbled in seconds.

Using simple explosives from an electrical engineer he knew, Knightly, recreated the crash that toppled the bridge. This wasn't a big-budget studio. And Knightly didn't have another nine months to build a bridge. He needed it to work right on the first take.

"I was very lucky it went pretty much according to plan," Knightly said. "There were some parts we kind of re-did. We kind of propped the bridge back on (the piers) and toppled it back over. It's not always easy to blow up a bridge."

Using friends as actors, the Salvation Army for costumes and his mother's 1970s vintage materials for props, Knightly finished filming The Fallen Sky last October.

He's been editing it since. Earlier this week, he still had a few scenes to finish before the premiere.

"I'm excited to see it finished," he said.

Knightly, a student at the University of Central Florida, hopes to enter the school's film program and study film arts.

If you go

Royalty Theatre hosts the debut of The Fallen Sky, a drama about the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. The film, directed and produced by Christian Knightly, is at 7:30 tonight at 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. General admission is $10. Bronze, gold and platinum sponsorship is $40, $60 and $75 respectively. For information, call (727) 441-8868.

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