Twenty years ago, a tragic accident sent 35 people plunging to their deaths.
Lerro, 37, an experienced harbor pilot from Tampa, shouldered the responsibility of guiding the Summit Venture from the Gulf of Mexico 58.4 miles up Tampa Bay to the Port of Tampa. It is one of the longest shipping channels in the world, and one of the most treacherous, given the shallow waters of the bay and the ambush style of Florida weather.
With the ship’s belly empty of cargo and her tanks nearly empty of ballast, she rode high in the water.
She ran through intermittent fog and rain along the first 19 miles of her journey. Then southwest winds exploded to tropical-storm force. Rain sheeted at rates exceeding 7 inches an hour. Visibility plunged to near zero, and shipboard radar failed.
It couldn’t have happened at a worse point. Lerro faced the most critical course change of the run, a 13-degree turn that would take him between the two main piers of the Skyway bridge.
It was at almost this exact spot that the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn had been rammed four months earlier by the tanker Capricorn. The Blackthorn sank. Twenty-three men died.
Lerro approached the critical bend on a ship weighing nearly 20,000 tons battered by winds of nearly 60 mph.
And he approached it blind……..
The horror in Lerro’s voice is painful to hear
Lerro: Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Coast Guard. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Coast Guard.
Coast Guard: Vessel calling Mayday, vessel in distress. This is the United States Coast Guard, St. Petersburg, Florida. Request your position, the nature of distress and the number of persons on board. Over.
Lerro: Get emergency . . . all the emergency equipment out to the Skyway bridge. Vessel has just hit the Skyway bridge. The Skyway bridge is down! Get all emergency equipment out to the Skyway bridge. The Skyway bridge is down. This is Mayday. Emergency situation. (Nearly screaming) Stop the traffic on that Skyway bridge!"
CG: This is Coast Guard St. Petersburg, roger. What size is the vessel that hit the bridge? Over.
Lerro: It’s a large vessel. Stop the traffic on the Skyway bridge. There’s some people in the water. Get emergency equipment out to the Skyway bridge. Now.
CG: This is the Coast Guard, St. Petersburg. Roger. What vessel are you on? Over.
Lerro: Summit Venture. Summit Venture.
CG: Summit Venture, Coast Guard St. Petersburg, roger. What is the size of your vessel and can you assist? Over.
Lerro: Cannot assist. We’re 606 feet long, light draft. We cannot assist here. We’re on an abutment. Stop all the traffic on the bridge. Send some vessels out here to render assistance. People are in the water……..