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Memories stay with man at command of the ship

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
"You know, you don't want to hit a bridge. Not that bridge. Not any bridge."

- JOHN LERRO
Harbor pilot on the Summit Venture, which hit the Skyway on May 9, 1980


TAMPA -- John Lerro, a kid from the Bronx who danced ballet at Carnegie Hall, served as a merchant seaman and maneuvered great ships through the treacherous waters of Tampa Bay, a man who puts a premium on motion, is losing control of his body.

Multiple sclerosis bends his hands and legs at angles that shouldn't be. He squints one eye to focus. Speech is difficult, and thoughts don't always track.

Most memories are to be avoided altogether.

"I don't like this time of year," Lerro, 57, says with difficulty. "I don't like it because, well, because MS is not good in the heat."

But heat isn't really the issue. Lerro's next thought comes at high volume, as if he is still trying to convince someone.

"You know, you don't want to hit a bridge," he says. "Not that bridge. Not any bridge. That bridge was not fendered. Lots of bridges in the world are not fendered."

Had there been fenders protecting the main piers of the old Sunshine Skyway, they might have deflected the Summit Venture, the 600-foot freighter under Lerro's command on May 9, 1980. Instead, off course in a driving rain, it hit the bridge and brought down the roadway, killing 35.

Does he think often about that day?

"No," he replies bluntly.

"Yes," replies Laila Lerro, his wife of two years. "He thinks about it too much. All the time."

He tries to explain how he feels about the accident with 20 years' perspective, his feelings about the role God played. But it doesn't come out right. His attorney, Steve Yerrid, steps in to explain.

"All the world thought John was guilty," Yerrid said. "John got some partial, personal salvation from our defense that the storm caused the catastrophe, and the storm was an act of God. Until John understood that God had a hand in this, he was the only culprit."

* * *

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• Skyway needs repairs, but will last

Following the state and Coast Guard inquiries late in 1980, Lerro resumed his career as a harbor pilot. He began having trouble maintaining his balance, climbing ladders. He thought it must be an old knee injury. But medical tests showed the first symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a disease that hardens tissue in the brain or spinal column, eroding muscle control and impairing thought.

After a year, he had to quit. Depressed, he returned to New York and taught at the Maritime Academy, his alma mater. He lived in a cramped room aboard a ship and thought about suicide.

When Lerro returned to Tampa and his marriage collapsed, he enrolled at the University of South Florida and earned a master's degree in counseling. He volunteered at Hillsborough's crisis hotline and at a center for criminals on probation.

Those memories make him smile.

"All the people who go through the probation center say they're innocent," Lerro said. "I said, "Then what are you doing here? It seems like you did two things wrong; you did it, and you got caught.' I could speak the language they spoke. When you come from the Bronx, you can speak that language."

He starts to use some of that language. Yerrid cautions him against "naughty words." Laila asks him to be careful.

"Okay, I won't say f---," Lerro says, delighted with his joke. Laila slaps his hand lightly.

The conversation grows serious again. Did Lerro ever feel he was speaking to the criminals as one screwup to another?

His eyes narrow and his smile fades. He adjusts his long ponytail of salt-and-pepper hair. He shakes his head slowly.

"I don't find anything of myself in that word," he says.

Did he ever lose his sense of humor?

"Yes, but it's better now. You've got to keep your sense of humor to get through life. Life throws you a lot of things that aren't bearable, and you have to find a way to bear them."

* * *

John and Laila Lerro live in Hillsborough County. He spends his time in bed -- too much time in bed, Laila says -- or in his wheelchair. He lives on a pension and disability.

He looks for diversions.

"I tell myself, keep the boob tube off," Lerro says. "I read. I like to read. But my reading is not perfect because these eyes are joining the disease."

The Lerro yard is well-tended. Succulents and bird feeders hang from a tree out front. But all the windows and doors are covered with ironwork, and a rusty signpost bearing the name of the owner of the home and the address has been uprooted and set up near the front door, turned away from the street.

Lerro doesn't want people to know where he is. Especially this time of year.

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