St. Petersburg Times
TAMPA – The state Board of Pilot Commissioners Tuesday unanimously accepted a hearing officer’s conclusion that Tampa Bay pilot John Lerro acted in a “reasonable, prudent” manner when he tried to steer his vessel below the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
Lerro didn’t make it. In a blinding rainstorm without benefit of navigational aids, the empty phosphate freighter Summit Venture crashed into one of the bridge’s piers, causing a quarter mile of the structure to fall into Tampa Bay. Thirty-five people died as their vehicles, including a Greyhound bus bound for Miami, plunged into the water.
Lerro appeared momentarily stunned by the board’s decision, which came suddenly after five hours of sometimes heated discussion between attorneys and board members, and he hesitated as reporters descended on him for comment.
AS HE WALKED to his car, trying to avoid a tangle of television equipment wires, Lerro said he had not made up his mind whether he will pilot a vessel again on Tampa Bay. But he said he “presumed” he would.
“It varies from moment to moment,” Lerro told reporters, before acknowledging, “It’s the only job I’ve ever loved.”
Although voting to accept the conclusions of hearing officer Chris Bentley, there were indications from some of the six voting board members that they did not share Bentley’s conclusions but felt bound by the law to accept them.
“It’s a sad day in Mudville,” commented board member and Tampa lawyer Crosby Few, when experienced Tampa Bay pilots testify that Lerro made the right decision to “shoot for the hole” underneath the bridge.
BUT THAT’S EXACTLY what the pilots did testify last fall in a week-long hearing before Bentley, so Few said he felt bound by the testimony that was given at the hearing, despite his own opinions about Lerro’s actions in trying to navigate through the storm. Few described those actions as “like playing Russian roulette with only one empty chamber in the gun.”
“To me it’s much more interesting what’s not in the transcript of the testimony,” said board member and Miami cruise ship official Peter Whelpton.
“Unfortunately most of the facts weren’t brought to light,” Whelpton said as he voted to accept Bentley’s report.
Commented acting board chairman William E. Jackson, a pilot from South Florida, “Regardless of how we may feel, there’s only one choice.”
The board’s ruling is a major step for Lerro toward his goal of returning to the sea. It is not final, however, and can be appealed by the state Department of Professional Regulation to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.
LERRO DESCRIBED the 10 months since the May 9 tragedy as “difficult” and expressed the thought that “the worst thing about it is that the accident happened.” He declined to say what he had been doing in that time, but he was receiving money from the pilot’s association until last month when his benefits expired.
His lawyer, C. Steven Yerrid, said he wanted people of the area to know that Lerro would not just “jump on a ship” when the temporary suspension of his license is listed. “He’s going to be contemplating what his first action is” said Yerrid.
Although quiet, Lerro did joke with reporters in the parking lot below the airport hotel, where the meeting took place. As he prepared to drive off, he warned a group of reporters to “duck behind these poles” as he backed his car out.
THROUGHOUT THE day, board members and attorneys clashed over whether they could consider evidence that was not brought out at the hearing and whether they were bound to accept Bentley’s conclusion if they found it was backed by “competent” and “substantial” evidence.
But by 3:30 p.m., with all in the room visibly restless, former State Senate President Louis De la Parte, who assisted Yerrid in defending Lerro, asked to address the board.
De la Parte advised the commissioners that the question before them was whether Bentley had reached a competent decision and not whether they should retry the case “without benefit of witnesses.”
Board lawyer John Griffin told the pilot commissioners, “Your job is not to sit and reweigh the testimony. It’s the hearing officer’s prerogative to make a decision.”
THAT SAID, the board sprang to life and by 4 p.m. the decision had been made. The suddenness of it surprised many, including Lerro, who said of the moments leading up to his exoneration, “everything’s so negative and then it’s positive.”
Kenneth G. Oertel, a Tallahassee lawyer who has represented the state in its efforts to take away Lerro’s license, said he didn’t know what he would recommend to Secretary of Professional Regulation Nancy Kelley Wittenberg. It is up to her whether to appeal the board’s decision to the courts.
Early in the day, Oertel and Yerrid each took 30 minutes to tell their version of what happened the morning of May 9, 1980. Their statements were a rephrasing of arguments they have made many times in legal pleadings and at administrative hearings dating back to last June.
According to Yerrid, Lerro was steering the Summit Venture into port when the vessel was overtaken by a sudden and severe storm. It was an “act of God” that rendered the vessel out of control, forcing the Summit Venture into the bridge. There was nothing Lerro could do that a “reasonable and prudent” mariner would not have done in the same situation.
BUT OERTEL reiterated his claim that Lerro “froze” as he neared the critical point where he would have to turn into the channel leading under the bridge. The Summit Venture was “on a meandering, erratic course as if no one was at the helm,” he told board members.
Yerrid argued that his client has been subjected to unfair criticism, even to the point that it has been suggested he was mentally impaired. He said the state failed to prove its case before hearing officer Bentley and was failing again before the board.
“He went with his best shot – that’s all you can say he did,” Yerrid said of Lerro’s decision to continue steering the vessel toward the bridge.
Two of the board members, Gulfport homemaker Lucile Churchill and Port St. Joe harbor pilot Dave Maddox, termed the board’s meeting Tuesday a case of “Monday morning quarterbacking.”
“There’s a lot of that going on here,” said Maddox, who repeatedly defended Lerro’s actions throughout the board meeting.