Baltimore bridge collapse echoes 1980 Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster in Tampa Bay

The shocking collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore early Tuesday morning gives people in the Bay Area some frightening flashbacks to another disaster.

Just under 44 years ago, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapsed after being hit by a freighter in one of the worst tragedies in the area's history

READ: Baltimore Key Bridge collapses after struck by cargo ship; 2 rescued, several others believed in water

On May 9, 1980, the M/V Summit Venture freighter collided with a support beam on the Skyway Bridge, connecting Lower Tampa Bay to St. Pete, sending a 1,200-foot section of the road into the water below. 

It was just after 7:30 a.m. that day when a storm blew across Tampa Bay and gusted the 600-foot-long freighter into the bridge.  

Thirty-five people were killed after six cars, a truck, and a Greyhound bus fell over 150 feet into the water.

Bill DeYoung, a journalist for more than 40 years, was 21 years old and living in St. Petersburg when the freighter slammed into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

1980 Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster video

"Every time you went over that bridge you were taking your life in your own hands," DeYoung said.

He said there were conflicting reports for decades on what happened and who was to blame for the deadly disaster. 

"It could have been any one of us" DeYoung said. "It could have been me driving to Bradenton to visit family that morning."

He researched the subject and wrote a book called "Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down." He went back to the old bridge's beginning.


9th May 1980: Debris from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge perched on the bow of the freighter 'Summit Venture' after the vessel rammed the bridge during a thunderstorm at Tampa Bay, Florida, causing 34 deaths. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

"When the first Skyway Bridge was built in 1954, what they had to protect the bridge from ships was a series of 2x4's nailed to pilings," said DeYoung. "So when the Summit Venture hit the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, there was no protection at all."

When the new Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened in 1987, the state had spent millions of dollars on safety bumpers in the waters below the span designed to protect the structure. 

READ: 42 years pass since deadly Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster

There was also something else about the Skyway disaster that lingered for years. It was the talk concerning the harbor pilot who was in control of the Summit Venture at the time.

"Over the last 40 years, you keep hearing ‘that drunk pilot, he was stoned’ or ‘he was drunk. He was this or that,’ so we wanted to clear his name," said Frankie Vandeboe, the executive producer of the 2020 documentary film called "The Skyway Bridge Disaster." 


A car precariously balanced, just 14 inches short of plummeting 140 feet into Tampa Bay, Florida, after the freighter 'Summit Venture' rammed into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge during a thunderstorm, killing 34 people. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

That documentary was co-produced by Steve Yerrid, the Tampa lawyer who represented the harbor pilot, John Laro. The film goes through Laro's court case where it was ruled that an "Act of God," a quick but furious storm that brought visibility to zero, led to the accident, and not pilot error by Laro. 

Still, the harbor pilot carried the terrible event with him until he died. DeYoung said Laro talked to friends about it. 

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"He would call them in the middle of the night and say, ‘if I had made the turn sooner’ or ‘if I would have done this or done that' it might have been different," DeYoung said.

Portions of the old stretch remain since it was reopened in 1987, though, in the form of the fishing piers at each end of the 'new' bridge.

Authorities said a ship called the ‘Dali’ struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge at around 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday. At a press conference, officials said two people had been pulled from the water, with rescue efforts still underway for others.