Skip to main content

Sunshine Skyway

The Francis Scott Key Bridge Brings Up Memories of The Sunshine Skyway Bridge Disaster

| Angela Naff |

With the collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, many here on the Suncoast were reminded of another bridge collapse. The Skyway Bridge collapse remains one of the most tragic and haunting events in the history of bridge engineering. On May 9, 1980, the unthinkable happened: the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay, Florida, collapsed, sending several vehicles plummeting into the waters below and claiming 35 lives. The incident forever changed the landscape of bridge construction and safety regulations, prompting a thorough investigation and leading to significant improvements in bridge design and maintenance protocols.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge was a crucial link between St. Petersburg and Terra Ceia, spanning the vast waters of Tampa Bay. At the time of its construction in 1954, it was considered a modern marvel, boasting a graceful, cable-stayed design that allowed for unobstructed passage beneath its main span. However, as the years went by, the bridge began to show signs of wear and corrosion, particularly in its support structures.

The construction of the Francis Scott Key Bridge was slightly different. Construction of the Key Bridge began in 1972, and it was opened to traffic on March 23, 1977. The firm of J.E. Greiner Company designed the bridge, which is a steel arch bridge with a total length of 4,365 feet. It consists of two main spans, each measuring 1,200 feet, supported by two steel arches that rise 354 feet above the river’s surface. The bridge had a total of eight lanes, four in each direction, and accommodated both vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

On a fateful day in May 1980, a violent storm swept through the Tampa Bay area, with strong winds and heavy rain battering the bridge. A large cargo vessel, the Summit Venture, was en route to the Port of Tampa when it encountered the storm. Due to poor visibility and a miscommunication with the bridge’s control tower, the ship’s captain lost control of the vessel, and it collided with a support pier of the southbound span.

The impact was catastrophic. A large section of the bridge, including the span over the main shipping channel, collapsed into the water, taking with it several vehicles that were crossing at the time. The scene was one of chaos and confusion, with survivors struggling to escape the wreckage and emergency responders racing to the scene to render aid.

During a White House press briefing Wednesday afternoon, March 27, 2024, Vice Adm. Peter Gautier, deputy commandant for operations for the U.S. Coast Guard, said the cargo ship that hit the key bridge was loaded with 4,700 containers, 56 of which contained hazardous materials. After hitting a support piling, the structure of the bridge crumpled onto the ship, locking it into place and halting all operations in the port – which services a high number of automobile import operations. This is expected to be felt in large and small ways by those employed at the port and others expecting goods that will be delayed or rerouted.

In the aftermath of the skyway collapse, a comprehensive investigation was launched to determine the cause of the disaster. It was revealed that the collision had caused a critical failure in the bridge’s main span, leading to its collapse. The incident highlighted the need for improved safety measures and maintenance practices for bridges, particularly those located in areas prone to extreme weather conditions.

We are freshly off the disaster in Baltimore, and the coming days and weeks will see the results of that investigation. At this time, the bridge’s collapse has indefinitely halted the flow of ships in and out of Baltimore, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said rebuilding the bridge won’t be “quick or easy.” This disaster will impact commerce, the city’s traffic flow, and conversations about the rebuilding process and structure for a good long time into the future.

As a result of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapse, significant changes were implemented in the design and construction of bridges across the country. Enhanced safety protocols, including regular inspections and maintenance, as well as improved communication between ships and bridge operators, became standard practice. The tragedy served as a stark reminder of the importance of vigilance and diligence in ensuring the safety of vital infrastructure.

Today, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the enduring legacy of those who lost their lives in the collapse. It serves as a symbol of progress and a reminder of the ongoing efforts to improve the safety and reliability of our bridges and infrastructure. We expect that the rebuilt Francis Scott Key Bridge will also become a testament to those construction workers’ lives lost in the collapse, and the resilience of the city it serves. Let all eyes, hearts, and minds take a moment to remember those lost in these terrible accidents and lessons learned by these terrible blots on our history of transportation in this country.

Feature Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

Skip to content