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Freighter rams Skyway, span falls sea, 35 are killed


St. Petersburg Times

At least 35 persons were killed Friday morning when a huge freighter slammed into the Sunshine Skyway bridge, toppling a 1,200-foot length of the bridge and several vehicles into Tampa Bay.

A Greyhound bus en route from Chicago to Miami – with a stop in St. Petersburg – and at least three cars plummeted into the water after the 608-foot Summit Venture struck a support just south of the bridge’s center span.

It was not known if anyone had boarded the bus in St. Petersburg.

By Friday afternoon, 18 bodies had been recovered – nine women, eight men and a baby. The bus carried a driver and 22 passengers. The driver was identified as Michael Curtin. The other victims were unidentified.

Coast Guard officials believe other vehicles may be in the bay.

SO FAR, only one survivor is known. Wesley MacIntire, 56, of Gulfport, was admitted to St. Anthony’s Hospital with a cut on the head and water in his lungs after his pickup truck dropped into the bay. MacIntire was picked up by crew members from the ship.

The Liberian-registered freighter was bound for Tampa to pick up a load of phosphate. It crashed into and damages a support of the west main span and then struck and sheared off the support of the next span to the south at 7:38 a.m. None of the 30 to 40 crew members was injured and the boat sustained only minor damage.

The St. Petersburg Times reached the Summit Venture on ship-to shore radio in an attempt to talk to the pilot and the captain of the ship, but the person who answered simply said, “No comment!” before breaking the connection.

But the 26-year-old Skyway bridge was critically injured. Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) inspectors said repairing the shattered southbound span could take at least four years. They plan to reopen the parallel northbound span for two-way traffic sometime this weekend.

DOT BRIDGE inspection engineer Steven Plotkin said the concrete supports that hold up the 150-foot-tall Skyway superstructure are not designed to withstand such a crash.

“With a vessel like that, the pier (support) might as well have been a toothpick sitting there,” Plotkin said. “It’s like a toothpick being smashed by a sledgehammer. If the bridge was in perfect condition, it couldn’t have held up under that impact.”

Building a bridge over a busy shipping channel always adds some risk, he added. The is the third time a ship has struck the Skyway this year. The other impacts, however, did only minor damages.

The DOT announced Friday that Haraway Construction Co. of Columbus, Ga. will begin clearing debris out of the shipping channel today.

OFFICIALS are still unsure, however, how long the channel may be blocked. In January, when the Coast Guard buoy tender Blackthorn collided with an oil tanker just west of the bridge, a temporary channel was opened. Ships were sent around the scene of the collision, where the Blackthorn sank to the bottom and 23 crew members died. I took weeks to salvage the Blackthorn.

But Coast Guard Capt. Marshall E. Gilbert said shallow water in the area around the fallen bridge and the fact that other parts of the bridge hang close to the water make such an operation – a temporary channel – “unlikely” this time.

Two investigations into the accident have been scheduled. One will be conducted by the Coast Guard and the other by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Investigators said severe weather problems may have played a role in the disaster. At the time of the crash, winds were reported at 40 miles per hour, and a heavy curtain of fog and rain hung over the bridge.