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Book Review: Skyway

A consistent thought that follows Bill DeYoung’s enthralling, painstakingly-researched book Skyway is that this is a story DeYoung has wanted to tell for quite some time. The book relates the history of Tampa Bay, Florida’s first Sunshine Skyway Bridge, focusing primarily on the terrible events of May 9th, 1980.

It was on this day that the freighter Summit Venture crashed into one of the bridge’s support columns during a vicious, unexpected thunderstorm. The ensuing damage caused some 1200 feet of the bridge to descend into the bay itself. A terrible combination of the bridge collapsing and the destructive storm led to six cars, one truck, and an entire Greyhound bus driving off the broken bridge, falling 150 feet into the water. Thirty-five people died. Only one person survived the fall, Wesley MacIntire, and the fact that he sued the company that owned the freighter (he settled with them in 1984) is only one part of the story. DeYoung tells the most comprehensive story of the Skyway Bridge disaster that anyone could ever hope to tell. The level of detail here is impressively intricate.

Yet Skyway is never for a second a tedious recount of the day in question, one that quite possibly ruined the life of the Summit Venture’s pilot John Lerro. Skyway is gripping, but not because DeYoung goes out of his way to be morbid or tabloid dramatic. A journalist with over thirty years of experience, DeYoung has covered just about everything a journalist could hope to write about in his career so far. It is with this talent that he channels his clear desire to tell this particular piece of Tampa Bay history. His urgency and natural ability to write compelling non-fiction gives Skyway a means to be felt by anyone who reads it, in a way similar to how it has clearly affected him. For an event that happened over thirty years ago, and only impacted a small part of the country, that’s an impressive feat.

The reason why it’s an impressive feat is simple. Skyway reminds us that as a culture, remembering or even being aware of every tragedy that strikes in the world is impossible. Disasters that claim multiple lives and leave massive damage behind can grab the headlines for a moment. And then something else comes along. Very few things stay in the public consciousness for long. It’s either a coping mechanism, or simply the fact that we can only absorb so many awful things that go on around us. However, if something happens in our own backyard, there’s a good chance we’ll remember it always. As DeYoung, who lived in St. Petersburg, Florida for several years, takes us through the chronology of May 9th and beyond, it’s obvious that he absorbed this in a profound way. The story is going to stay with him long after we have put the book down.

From what Skyway tells us, it’s pretty evident that the catastrophe remained with pilot John Lerro until his death from Multiple Sclerosis complications in 2002. Lerro was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by both a state grand jury and a Coast Guard investigation, but Skyway suggests quite strongly that Lerro never got over his role in the disaster. Just as Skyway is not gruesome or dull, it is also not judgmental. The book allows Lerro to speak in a way that he perhaps never got to. We’ll never truly know whether this helped him or not. What we do get from DeYoung allowing Lerro to discuss his part as the pilot of the freighter is a sense that no one could have prevented what happened that day. Skyway takes us to this thought naturally. There is not even a single sentence of careful manipulation on DeYoung’s part.

Both the old and new Skyway Bridge share a long, strange history. There was the Blackthorn tragedy of 1980, in which 23 people died, and it is estimated that over 200 people have used the bridge to end their lives as of 2009. Simply driving over the bridge as it stands today does not connect you to any of these things. The only way stories like the one on May 9th can endure is if people like Bill DeYoung tell them. And if the people who tell stories along these lines tell them as well as DeYoung wrote Skyway, they will remain as fresh and horrible as the day they happened.

Skyway is now available from University of Florida Press. Click here to buy it now.