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Images evoke memories of 1980 Sunshine Skyway disaster

New disaster leads rescuers in the 1980 tragedy to relive it.

By JACOB H. FRIES and MICHAEL MOHAMMED, Times Staff Writers
Published August 2, 2007


The scene of the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge after the southbound span was struck on May 9, 1980.
photo
[Times files (1980)]
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Terry Longpre watched on television as divers jumped in the Mississippi River in search of people and knew all too well what they were facing.

"As far as being able to see anything, it's just like being in a closet," said Longpre, 60, of Ellenton.

Longpre should know. He was one of the rescue divers who jumped into the gulf after the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway bridge in 1980.

"It's was mostly touch and feel," recalled Longpre, a former sheriff's deputy and a member of the dive team. "You could go in there and close your eyes and do the same job. ... I'm sure it's similar in the Mississippi."

Like Longpre, Wednesday's bridge collapse in Minneapolis recalled for many across the Tampa Bay area the fall of the Skyway, which came tumbling down when the 606-foot freighter Summit Venture, piloted by John Lerro, rammed into a pier. Vehicles, including a Greyhound bus, plunged into the water, leaving 35 dead.

Tampa civil lawyer Steven Yerrid reached the Summit Venture soon after the accident, looking for Lerro. His firm represented many of the harbor pilots.

"It's etched in my memory forever. It changed the way I looked at life," he recalled Wednesday night. "It was too much even to believe. ... The people in Minnesota are going through the same thing, thinking about the watery grave and how all these people died."

Gerard Chalmers, now a St. Petersburg Fire Rescue district chief, was one of the first to swim into the Skyway wreckage.

He remembers that the fallen superstructure looked like a giant, submerged chain-link fence -- an image that crashed back when he saw a photo of the scene in Minneapolis.

Clinging to the concrete, he and a partner swam down through the dark.

"Especially after finding that first car," he said, "I was not expecting to find anyone alive."

Then he came across the fallen Greyhound bus. The impact had ripped off one of its sides, and Chalmers could make out three bodies inside.

"I can remember holding on to the grating, and you couldn't let go because of the current," which threatened to sweep Chalmers into the jagged metal.

"You're focusing on the realities of what will hurt you: entanglement, getting swept into debris, running out of air," he said.

"I don't think it really hits you till afterward," he said of the emotional weight of such a calamity. "Later on down the road, you think about it."

Then he paused.

"This whole thing, just talking about it, I can feel in my own voice. ... I feel like I'm cold. I have that anxiety."

[Last modified August 2, 2007, 01:04:36]


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