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May 9, 1980 - The Sunshine Skyway Bridge Collapses

Posted May 09, 2007 6:00 AM by julie

On this day in engineering history, the SS Summit Venture struck Florida's Sunshine Skyway in one of the worst bridge disasters in American history. The 19,734-ton freighter caused a section of the steel bridge to collapse, sending 35 people to a watery grave. "We had no idea what we were dealing with", said Bill Covert, an Eckerd College instructor who led the search-and-rescue operations, but before long "we had run out of body bags".

Completed in 1969, the Sunshine Skyway was a four-lane, cantilever bridge that spanned Tampa Bay for 5.5 miles from St Petersburg to Palmetto. The steel bridge replaced a ferry and extended a highway, US 19. The SS Summit Venture was an ocean-going vessel on the last leg of a journey along the Gulf of Mexico shipping channel. This 58.4 mile route through Tampa Bay to the Port of Tampa is one of the world's longest and most dangerous shipping lanes.

On the morning of May 9, 1980, the SS Summit Venture lost its radar while a tropical storm raged. As visibility plunged to near zero and rain fell at 7 inches per hour, the ship tried to navigate a difficult, 13-degree turn between the two main piers of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

At 7:33 AM, the nearly 20-ton ship collided with pier 2S, sending over 1200 feet of roadway into stormy Tampa Bay. The impact caused several automobiles and a Greyhound Bus to plunge 150 feet, killing 35 people. Wesley MacIntire, the only person to survive the disaster, was rescued by the crew of the SS Summit Venture after his pickup truck landed on the ship's deck and rolled into the bay.

In the aftermath of the Summit Venture disaster, the northbound span of the Sunshine Skyway carried one lane of traffic in either direction. A new cable-stayed, concrete bridge - the world's longest at 29,040 feet - was completed in 1987 at a cost of $240 million. The new structure's main span is 50% wider than the old bridge. Additionally, the piers of the main span and the approaches for 1/4 mile in either direction are surrounded by large concrete barriers called "dolphins" that can protect the bridge's piers from collisions with freighters larger than even the Summit Venture.

The main span of the old northbound bridge was demolished in 1993. The approaches for both of the old spans were made into the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park. Today, these approaches sit 1/2 mile to the south and west of the replacement structure.

Resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunshine_Skyway_Bridge

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