2013-11-20 / Arts & Entertainment News

A troubled bridge over shallow waters

FLORIDA WRITERS

¦ “Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down,” by Bill DeYoung. University Press of Florida. 208 pages. $24.95.

A skillful combination of local history and biography, Bill DeYoung’s book reveals the sharp eye and patient research of a seasoned Florida journalist. His study makes us think about the societal role of iconographic structures, their majesty and their destiny.

Mr. DeYoung’s portrait of the interplay between natural forces and human limitation reminds me of Shelley’s great sonnet, “Ozymandias,” with its timeless concern about human vanity and human vulnerability:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs
of stone

Stand in the desart. Near them, on the
sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose
frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold
command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions
read
Which yet survive, stamped on these
lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the
heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and
despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the
decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and
bare
The lone and level sands stretch far
away.


Bill DeYoung Bill DeYoung The history that Mr. DeYoung assembles is marked by four important moments. First, the opening of the original, majestic span of the bridge in 1954. Next, the delayed opening of its twin span in 1971. Then, most notably, the freighter Summit Venture’s collision with and destruction of the newer bridge on May 9, 1980. Finally, the replacement of the twin bridges in 1989 with an even more astonishing structure.

The author places the planning and execution of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the context of the Tampa Bay region’s population and economic growth. He discusses, perhaps too briefly, the tragedy five months earlier when a U.S. Coast Guard vessel and a passenger enear ship collided near the bridge, underscoring orof the difficulty of navigating the deep,ep, manmade shippingng channels of otherwisese shallow Tampa Bay.

In his moment-bymoment yn narration of the 1980 disaster,r,

- Mr. DeYoung creates e the intensity we are used to findingg in mystery thrillers. He takes us, as much as possible, into the thoughts and emotions of the principal players as the unfolding calamity is perceived too late in the fury of a sudden, blinding rainstorm.

The principal character, who receives a full-dress biography, is harbor pilot John Lerro. His education and training, his experience, his reputation among his peers and his domestic life are given detailed attention. It was Mr. Lerro who had the responsibility of boarding the inbound Summit Venture and guiding it under the Sunshine Skyway to its port destination.

Mr. Lerro failed. But could anyone have succeeded given the combination of circumstances that Mr. DeYoung so effectively presents?

Depending in large part on interviews with Mr. Lerro’s lawyer, Steve Yerrid, the author maps out the investigations by civil authorities and the Coast Guard. He builds the tension once again in his handling of transcripts and remembrances. A strong case was built against Mr. Lerro, although he was eventually exonerated.

Mr. Lerro, who died in 2002 at the age of 59 from multiple sclerosis, was always haunted by a sense of guilt. Thirtyfive people perished in this catastrophe. Mr. DeYoung details the ways in which Mr. Lerro strove to build a life of helping others as a kind of atonement for this guilt.

The author provides brief, memorial profiles of isfa those who were crossing the bridge when tragedy struck, putting us into their final moments. He also does an excellent job of representing in the chaos in the immediate at aftermath of the bridge’s fafailure.

With a handy index and exextensive notes on his sources, MMr. DeYoung, opens the door for other writers to look further into the facts and meaning of this monumental accident. Do we yearn, collectively and through our government leaders, to immortalize our greatness — like emperor Ozymandias — with colossal monuments on the sands or over the waters? What will time tell us about our vanity?

A native of Pinellas County, Mr. DeYoung spent 26 years as a feature writer and editor with Florida newspapers. Since 2008, he has been an arts and entertainment writer/editor based in Savannah, Ga. ¦

— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.

Return to top