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Sunshine Skyway set the standard for bridge protections. They weren't present in Baltimore

A tall bridge with yellow steel supports is surrounded by blue water. A few cars line the bridge, and in the water below are bumpers and rock islands surrounding the bridge.
Courtesy Mark Luther
USF Center for Maritime and Port Studies
Thirty-six cylindrical concrete bumpers filled with rock line the bottom of the Sunshine Skyway, along with two rock islands that surround the main supports. These protective structures were installed after the 1980 disaster to guard the new bridge against vessels crashing into it.

Mark Luther, director of the USF Center for Maritime and Port Studies, said the Sunshine Skyway collapse in 1980 led to innovations for bridge protection that were not present at the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.

After a 606-foot freighter crashed into the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway bridge in 1980, it caused a 1,200-foot section of roadway to collapse. It took years to build a new one.

The new bridge was outfitted with cutting-edge technology and structural elements.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, which opened in 1977 — three years before the Skyway disaster — collapsed earlier this week after it was struck by a nearly 1,000-foot freighter. It was nearly four times as heavy as the ship that hit the Skyway.

But the Key Bridge was never retrofitted with structural protections to guard against this scenario.

Mark Luther, director of the University of South Florida Center for Maritime and Port Studies, said the collapse of the Skyway spurred innovations for bridge protection.

For one, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration implemented the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System, or PORTS. They are sensors placed around Tampa Bay to measure wind speed, waves, currents, tides, fog, and other weather elements that could affect how a ship travels.

Had this technology existed in 1980, Luther said the Skyway disaster might have been avoided.

Thirty-eight ports and harbors in the U.S. utilize this technology, including Chesapeake Bay North, where the Key Bridge was.

But Luther said this technology wouldn't have been able to do much to help the bridge because it wasn't a severe weather event that caused the crash. Experts said it was likely an electrical malfunction of some sort on the freighter that hit the bridge.

"All that black smoke that came out, if you could see in the video just before it hit, was either them trying to restart the engines — which happens when you start a big diesel engine on a vessel like that, it belches out a lot of black smoke — or perhaps there was even a fire in the engine spaces that led to the power outage," Luther said.

"We won't know until the NTSB finishes their investigation," he added.

Tampa was also the first to implement a Vessel Traffic System using GPS and radios. It's similar to an air traffic control center, but instead guides marine traffic at the Port of Tampa.

"The only difference is that the harbor pilots or the captains of the vessels make their own decisions about when to do different maneuvers or when to come and go," Luther said.

In extreme cases, the port captain can command vessels to take evasive actions.

The new Skyway Bridge was at the time the first of its kind as well. And now it's become basically the standard for bridges of that type.
Mark Luther, director of the USF Center for Maritime and Port Studies

And with how busy the Baltimore Port is, Luther believes they probably had a similar type of service. But technology like this can only do much if a ship loses power.

Luther also spoke about some of the other structural protections put in place at the Skyway that were not implemented in Baltimore — protections like concrete barriers and rock islands that are meant to deflect ships from hitting the bridge.

In 2007, a 900-foot ship hit the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. But thanks to a system implemented to absorb strikes, the bridge stood firm.

The following is an excerpt from the conversation with Luther.

Luther: The Skyway Bridge disaster — it was a meteorological event. A line of very intense thunderstorms caught up with the Summit Venture, the ship that knocked the bridge down, just as it was approaching the center span of the Skyway Bridge. The pilot was blinded by the heavy rains and had 60- to 70-mile-an-hour winds pushing him sideways out of the channel.

He ordered the engines in full reverse and had the crew drop anchors, but that wasn't enough to stop the vessel in the short span of time and distance that they had.

The entire center span of the southbound lane collapsed. The northbound span was not damaged.

But this was not a weather event in Baltimore. This was a major mechanical failure of some sort.

Head shot of a man with glasses and gray goatee, wearing a blue shirt and suit jacket
Cliff McBride
Mark Luther, director of the USF Center for Maritime and Port Studies

After the Skyway disaster in 1980, what kind of structural and design changes did that prompt?

One of the main things they did is put those big, cylindrical bumpers, basically called dolphins, along each side of the main span to protect all of the main supports. These things are concrete and filled with rock. They stick way down into the bottom, and they rise about 15 feet above the waterline, and they're about 65 feet across. There are 36 of them. Nine on each side of the bridge on each side of the center span.

And then around the bottom of those main tower supports, is a huge rock island.

In the Francis Scott Key Bridge case, there were no protective structures around the domain supports. That bridge was built in the mid-'70s, before the Skyway Bridge disaster, and for whatever reason, it was never retrofitted with the newer technologies that were developed for bridge construction in the aftermath of the Skyway Bridge disaster.

The vessel that hit the Francis Scott Key Bridge was about four times the size of the vessel that hit the Skyway Bridge. Vessels the size of the one that hit the Key Bridge do come in and out of Tampa Bay on a regular basis.

But again, with the combination of those dolphins and the big rock islands, it's highly unlikely, if not impossible, that they could hit the bridge itself and cause a collapse.

Do you know about what the cost is to retrofit a bridge like the Key Bridge that has been there since the '70s?

It will be in the tens of millions of dollars. But again, what's this going to cost? To do repairs and lost commerce — because the Port of Baltimore is going to be completely shut down until they remove all of that debris from the ship channel. So, until they get all that wreckage cleared out, which will probably take several weeks, if not more, no ships can come or go. That's a huge economic impact.

The new Skyway Bridge was at the time the first of its kind as well. And now it's become basically the standard for bridges of that type.

What do you think the timeline looks like for the actual bridge to be up and running?

The bridge itself is going to take years to replace.

And the Skyway disaster, because they wanted to get the design right, they didn't even start the construction until about three or four years later. And the new bridge, it didn't open until 1987.

So depending on how long it takes them to get the design work and the funding and all of that in place, it's probably going to be at least three or four years before they get a replacement bridge in place possibly longer.

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.