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Baltimore bridge collapse rekindles Skyway memories for Tampa Bay area residents

Black and white photo of a car on a bridge with a man standing beside an ajar door.
Jackie Kolodziej Riley
Joe Kolodziej Sr. stands at the very edge of the Sunshine Skyway bridge after a cargo ship crashed into it and collapsed a section. Kolodziej wore a harness as his tow truck pulled the Buick to safety.

The collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge spurred recollections of the 1980 Sunshine Skyway disaster. Over 40 years later, search and rescue officials say the two incidents are "eerily similar."

The Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore collapsed into the Patapsco River early Tuesday after the Dali, a nearly 1,000-foot-long container ship, crashed into it.

NPR reports that eight construction workers fell into the Patapsco River. Two were rescued, and the other six are presumed dead and recovery efforts were to resume Wednesday morning.

The collapse instantly reminded many in the Tampa area of the May 9, 1980, Sunshine Skyway bridge disaster, when a 606-foot freighter, Summit Venture, hit the southbound span of the steel cantilever bridge.

During a particularly harsh storm that all but wiped out visibility, the ship's harbor pilot, Capt. John Lerro, couldn't see the bridge before the crash.

On impact, a more than 1,200 feet of roadway plunged into Tampa Bay below.

In turn, drivers on the bridge couldn't see the missing section. As a result, six cars, a pickup truck and a Greyhound bus carrying 26 passengers fell 150 feet into the water. Thirty-five people were killed

There was only one survivor: Wesley MacIntire, the pickup driver whose vehicle hit the ship before tumbling into Tampa Bay.

“When I saw the video, I felt like I was watching the situation 44 years ago. So to me, they’re unfortunately rather identical."
Ryan Dilkey, director of Eckerd College's search and rescue team

Among the first responders was Eckerd College's Search and Rescue team.

Director Ryan Dilkey was only 4 years old when the Skyway disaster happened, but he is well aware of the impacts and lasting effects it had.

The reasons behind the Baltimore incident are still under investigation. But Dilkey said watching the ship crash into the Key bridge was "eerily similar" to what happened in Tampa Bay four decades ago.

“When I saw the video, I felt like I was watching the situation 44 years ago," Dilkey said. "So to me, they’re unfortunately rather identical."

The challenges facing rescue crews

The team, based out of St. Petersburg-based Eckerd College, began offering services to the public in 1977, three years before the Skyway incident. But even with all the technological advancements and skills developed in the last half-century, Dilkey said rescue diving is still dangerous.

And in many cases, search efforts happen when there are still pieces of bridge, roadway, cars and the vessel itself in the water.

"When you're dealing with what can be very low- or even a zero-visibility environment, when you're searching for anything, whether it be debris or a vehicle or person or something of that nature, you're really searching by feel," Dilkey said.

He said this presents logistical and structural challenges to performing rescue or recovery operations, especially since divers essentially go blind into the water and attempt to make contact with objects so they can be raised and removed.

While every rescue mission begins hopeful, he said to some degree, with a collapse like the Skyway or the Key bridge, the likelihood of survival is low.

"From that height and with that amount of moving structure and whatnot — even if you're in a vehicle — vehicles are not necessarily designed to fall from 180 feet, hit water, and survive that impact very well," Dilkey said.

But in every operation, "You always want to hold out hope."

“Because Dick had a golf game the next day. His friends are screaming at him over the wind, 'Are you nuts? Get out of there! It's gonna fall.' And he finally says, 'Yeah, you know, they're right.' ”
Bill DeYoung

Skyway recovery and rebuilding efforts took years to complete. The current cable-stayed Skyway did not open until 1987. He expects a similar timeframe in Baltimore.

Among the safety improvements with the new Skyway are large concrete barriers, or "dolphins," designed to protect the support piers from impacts like from a large ship.

In the unlikely event something of this magnitude were to happen to the Skyway again, Dilkey said his crew is "ready and able if called upon."

"When a mass casualty of any kind occurs, it often requires every boat or every person you can muster,” he said.

A journalist and a tow truck driver's daughter remember

Tampa journalist Bill DeYoung wrote a book about the disaster called "Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down."

He spoke to Florida Matters in 2015 on the 35th anniversary of the collapse.

DeYoung shared the story of Richard Hornbuckle, whose yellow Buick stopped 14 inches from the edge of the collapsed bridge during the intense storm.

Hornbuckle's three passengers exited the vehicle and ran to safety, but Hornbuckle stayed back.

"The three guys get up to the top of the concrete," DeYoung said. "Where's Dick? They turn around and he's back at the car."

A yellow car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway bridge after the freighter Summit Venture struck the bridge during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span
Jackie Green
A car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway bridge after the freighter Summit Venture struck the bridge during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span, May, 9 1980. A container ship struck a major bridge in Baltimore early Tuesday, March 26, 2024, causing it to plunge into the river below. From 1960 to 2015, there have been 35 major bridge collapses worldwide due to ship or barge collision.

DeYoung said Hornbuckle was trying to open his trunk to retrieve his golf clubs.

“Because Dick had a golf game the next day," DeYoung said. "His friends are screaming at him over the wind, 'Are you nuts? Get out of there! It's gonna fall.' And he finally says, 'Yeah, you know, they're right.'”

Hornbuckle joined his friends. Eventually, a tow truck driven by Joe Kolodziej Sr., owner of Joe's Towing and Recovery in Largo, showed up and brought the car — and Hornbuckle's golf clubs — to safety.

Kolodziej passed away in 2021, leaving the company to his children.

His daughter, Jackie Kolodziej Riley, said her dad never really wanted the spotlight. He just knew he needed to help that day, so he did.

He got into a harness and carefully made his way down the broken bridge to Hornbuckle's car. Kolodziej put it in neutral and towed it back to safety.

Riley said her dad later joked that Hornbuckle was mostly worried about saving his golf clubs.

Even 40 years later, there are multiple accounts of people who drive the extra hour to go around the Tampa Bay instead of driving Interstate 275 over the Skyway, whether it be because of the 180-foot height of the bridge or because of the accident.

But Dilkey said events such as this are extremely rare.

"It has to be the very unfortunate lining up of a complex set of circumstances that results in this occurrence," he said. "So I would at least, just for what it's worth, I wouldn't go thinking that ships are going to be colliding with bridges every other day."

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.
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