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Waters less troubled

Since an accident killed 35, the channel has been made easier to navigate. Depending on the weather.

Published May 8, 2005

[Times photo: Jackie Greene 1980]
With the bow of the Summit Venture in view, this is how close Richard Hornbuckle's car came to the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The southbound span of the bridge collapsed when it was struck by the ship on May 9, 1980

[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
The S/R Galena Bay, a 660-foot American oil tanker makes its way under the Skyway Bridge under the guidance of Tampa Bay Harbor Pilot J. Michael Buffington, after unloading its contents before heading to Texas.

ON TAMPA BAY - Another ambush storm. The kind harbor pilots talk about like boxers reliving an ugly fight.

Wind, driving rain and dense fog materialized out of nowhere. Visibility dropped to a few hundred yards. And then the Sunshine Skyway bridge completely disappeared from view.

In the wheelhouse of the SR Galena Bay, a 660-foot petroleum tanker making its way through the Tampa Bay shipping channel toward the Gulf of Mexico on a recent afternoon, harbor pilot Mike Buffington checked and rechecked his position, the location of other ships nearby, and the weather.

"The forecast was for scattered thunderstorms," Buffington would say later. "But any thunderstorm can develop into a severe storm.

"You just don't know until it's upon you."

The 41-mile channel is one of the longest in the world. And because of the shallow waters of the bay and the unpredictable storms, it is also one of the most treacherous.

It was one of those storms that harbor pilot John Lerro confronted in these same waters 25 years ago.

Lerro was guiding the 608-foot Summit Venture toward the Skyway early on May 9, 1980 when a sudden squall forced his ship off course, causing one of the worst maritime disasters in Florida history. The ship struck a support column, and the center section of the bridge's southbound span collapsed.

Thirty-five motorists, some on their way to work, some on vacation, fell to their death.

Twenty-five years later, many things have changed. The approach to the Skyway is slightly straighter, and the channel is deeper and wider. Pilots like Mike Buffington now carry high-tech gear that helps them better track where they and other ships are.

But the freighters, tankers and cruise ships that ply these waters are bigger than ever; some more than 1,000 feet long. (The tallest building in Tampa is 508 feet tall.)

The big ships still can't turn in the channel. Once they're in the main pipeline, they have to finish their run. In some parts, the largest ships can't pass each other. If a ship becomes grounded in the channel, the Port of Tampa shuts down.

Violent storms still explode out of nowhere.

And the pilots still fight them.

"We really do have it better now," Buffington said, wiping his face after his run on the Galena Bay. "But it's still an extremely stressful job.

"Especially when you can't see everything that's going on."

* * *

That was exactly what John Lerro faced on the morning of May 9, 1980.

At 6:25 a.m., near the same spot where Buffington climbed off the Galena Bay, Lerro scaled a rope ladder and boarded the Summit Venture, a 608-foot Liberian freighter. Empty and riding high in the water, the ship was coming to Tampa to pick up a load of phosphate for delivery to South Korea.

Lerro knew the waters, and he knew large ships. He had made the run in and out of the bay more than 800 times. It was a twisting, turning trip, a route Lerro would later describe as "40 miles of bad road."

Around 7 a.m., as the ship neared the bridge, a sudden storm rolled in from the southwest. By 7:15, visibility was so poor Lerro couldn't see the bow of his ship 500 feet away. Winds reached 60 mph.

Lerro judged it too risky to turn the Summit Venture out of the shipping channel to the north to anchor, for fear he would hit a ship that was approaching from the opposite direction.

Thinking the wind was still from the southwest, his right, Lerro assumed the wind would push the ship safely through the main spans of the Skyway.

He decided to forge ahead.

What he didn't know was that the wind had shifted to the west-northwest, his left. Instead of keeping him in the channel, it pushed the Summit Venture off course.

At 7:32, the weather cleared enough that Lerro could see part of the bridge superstructure looming directly ahead. He was out of the shipping channel.

He ordered a series of maneuvers, including emergency reversal of the engines and the deployment of the anchors.

At 7:33, the bow of the Summit Venture rammed Skyway pier 2S. The support pier toppled, taking 1,200 feet of roadway, a Greyhound bus, six cars and a pickup truck with it.

Thirty-six people plunged 150 feet into the water that morning.

Thirty-five of them died.

* * *

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are home to more than 102,000 licensed commercial and pleasure vessels - about one boat for every 20 residents. State records show most of those ships are relatively small - 40 feet or less.

But they share space with some of the largest vessels afloat - some more than 1,000 feet long that carry everything from PT Cruisers to people to anhydrous ammonia.

All this takes place at Florida's largest port, and the 10th largest in the nation.

For years, most ships using the port were between 500 and 650 feet long and weighed 12,000 to 20,000 tons empty.

Today, according to Capt. Jorge Viso, a Tampa Bay harbor pilot and the president of the Florida State Pilots Association, the typical ship is 750 feet long and logs in at 30,000 to 40,000 tons.

The port has also seen record increases in the number of cruise ship passengers in the past decade. At least four cruise lines, some with vessels bigger than the average freighter, now make stops in Tampa. In 1980, no cruise lines served Tampa.

In all, more than 2,000 huge vessels enter and leave the Port of Tampa every year, and unless a crew member on the ship is also a licensed harbor pilot, the job of steering the ships in and out of the port falls to one of 24 Tampa Bay harbor pilots.

Captains of foreign vessels aren't considered familiar enough with the bay's channels to guide their own ships, so the state requires they hire a state-licensed pilot. It's not always required, but domestic ships often use local pilots for their expertise.

About 90 percent of the ships using the port also use one of the two dozen pilots, whose annual salary is about $250,000.

The route they take is anything but a straight shot. There are eight in-bound turns, 12 out-bound turns, and in several spots, the channel is too narrow to allow two large ships to safely pass.

But the pilots say it's safer now.

Following the Skyway disaster, the Army Corps of Engineers deepened the channel from 34 feet to 43 feet, and in the portion north of the bridge, it was widened from 400 feet to 500 feet. Two of the major turns, located just south of MacDill Air Force Base, also were widened.

When the new Skyway bridge was built in 1987, it was located three-tenths of a mile further away from the turn at Mullet Key, making the approach to the bridge less sharp.

"The distance between the turn and the old bridge didn't allow for much recovery," said Buffington, who was working for the Corps of Engineers in 1980, a year before he became a harbor pilot. "That was one of the problems John Lerro had. He needed as much room as he could.

"But it didn't matter anyway, because the wind shifted on him."

It can take a pilot up to five hours to make the trip from a sea buoy just west of Egmont Key to one of several terminals at the port. The pilots also skipper the boats from the port back out into the Gulf.

* * *

The photo on the wall in Bill Covert's office shows people aboard two small Eckerd College powerboats grabbing at objects in the water. The background is an odd gray. Closer up, the color takes form. It is the massive hull of the Summit Venture.

Covert is associate dean of students and waterfront director at Eckerd College. For 34 years, he has run the college's search-and-rescue training program. In 1980, few of the area's police and fire departments had formal search-and-rescue dive teams. So Covert and his volunteers were among the first people to reach the accident scene.

"We saw the ship up against the bridge," Covert said recently. "A tugboat was trying to push it away, and the bus was bobbing in the water, upside down. My first thought was "How do we, in two small boats, respond to this?' "

Today, if a similar disaster took place, the response would be different.

The Skyway has several allegiances. The northern approach is in Pinellas County, the southern approach is in Manatee, the center span is part of Hillsborough, and traffic on the bridge is controlled by the Florida Highway Patrol.

But if there was a major accident in the water, the Coast Guard would respond first and would coordinate the rescue effort. If they needed help, they would notify local police and fire departments.

The Coast Guard and other agencies regularly practice their response to a disaster, whether it involves loss of life or a massive fuel spill, such as the 1993 accident in which three vessels, including a barge carrying jet fuel and one carrying diesel oil, crashed and caught fire in the shipping channel.

"In the beginning moments, there's going to be chaos," said Cmdr. David Bird, executive officer at the U.S. Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Tampa. "But in time, that will be controlled.

"The big difference today is that we're well practiced in working together to avoid the wasting of resources and duplication of effort to deal with large incidents."

* * *

In 1980, radar and voice communication were a harbor pilot's primary tools.

Today, pilots never board a ship without a lunchbox-sized portable transponder that gives them instant access to their position, the weather conditions and the location and size of nearby vessels.

"Now," said Buffington, "we can see where we are, and the information is updated almost constantly."

But all the recent technical innovations notwithstanding, Gary Maddox thinks the new Skyway bridge, opened in 1987, is safer now because of something decidedly low tech.

"We're far more aware now of traffic moving in and out of the channel," said Maddox, one of only two remaining pilots who was working in 1980. "But the biggest change that protects the Skyway now are the abutments that make (the bridge) virtually impossible to hit. No matter what happens, that is in place."

The channel passage beneath the bridge has been widened from 800 to 1,200 feet. But more importantly, Maddox said, the bridge supports are surrounded by rings of boulders and guarded by 36 bumpers, called dolphins. The concrete bumpers range from 47 to 64 feet in diameter, are wrapped in heavy wooden planks, and are designed to deflect or ground wayward ships. They appear to work well. The only significant collision with a dolphin occurred in 1999, when a shrimp boat hit one and sank.

"We're doing everything we can to keep the cards in our favor," Maddox said. "We have addressed as much as we can address at this point.

"But if you've been here one summer, you know how intense the weather can get. And if you have something 17 stories tall and 1,000 feet in length, the wind surface area is three or four times what the Summit Venture was.

"So you also need a little good luck once in awhile."

* * *

After the accident, John Lerro was called a drunk, a murderer and things even worse.

A state inquiry cleared him of negligence in 1980, and although a Coast Guard inquiry found that his decision to proceed in zero-visibility contributed to the crash, it also said many other factors beyond his control also played a big role.

He resumed his career as a harbor pilot for about a year, until multiple sclerosis forced him to quit.

He moved to New York for a few years, and when he returned to Tampa in 1986, his marriage collapsed. But at perhaps his lowest point, he bounced back. He enrolled at the University of South Florida, earned a master's degree in counseling, remarried, and volunteered at Hillsborough's crisis hotline and at a center for criminals on probation.

"Nothing was more sad than John's case," said Steve Yerrid, Lerro's attorney and friend over the years. "In him I saw desperation, abandonment, hopelessness. He was tormented for the rest of his life by the deaths of those 35 people."

Yerrid spoke with Lerro just before he died on Aug. 31, 2002, at age 59.

"We laughed and talked and were together again," Yerrid said of that final conversation. "And it was okay."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 8, 2005, 00:46:16]

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