Attorney determined to clear pilot’s name—again—in Skyway Bridge disaster

Iconic moment showing a car driven by Richard Hornbuckle who was able to brake just in time to avoid a plunge into the Bay after a freighter hit the Skyway Bridge in 1980. Hornbuckle told media, "“The Lord was real good to the four of us." (Image from NBC news video May 9, 1980 provided to Facebook)
Richard Hornbuckle said, “The Lord was real good to the four of us,” after he was able to brake in time when part of the Skyway Bridge collapsed, falling into Tampa Bay on May 9, 1980. (Photo from NBC News broadcast; May 9, 1980; video on Facebook)

Each May Floridians remember the 35 victims of the Skyway Bridge disaster in Tampa Bay. A freighter struck the bridge early in the morning on May 9, 1980. The freighter, Summit Venture, was flying the Liberian flag when a sudden storm made it impossible for radar to work.

The freighter was trying to turn when it struck the bridge. John E. Lerro, the pilot, eventually was cleared as far as fault goes, but that didn’t stop people from judging him. Media understandably covered the story intensely. Lerro is dead now, but his attorney aims to clear his name for the second time.

Tampa attorney Steve Yerrid is co-producing a film about the bridge disaster, hoping to set the record straight. Some media accounts reportedly blamed Lerro, and public opinion embraced theories the pilot had been drinking. Yerrid dismissed those theories because, he said, Lerro “was a health nut.”

Yerrid and Lerro remained close for years, until the pilot’s death in 2002. The Tampa Bay Times interviewed Yerrid about the forthcoming film:

“The documentary, Yerrid said, “is also about the bond he and I developed. I loved the guy. He was a good and genuine person.”

On the Facebook page for the documentary, co-producer Frankie Vandeboe recently answered questions about the release of the film. People asked if the film is completed, and Vandeboe said:

“No sir not yet, it’s in the final stages of editing. We have not decided where we will be distributing it at this time… we will have more information at the end of the month and make sure we share it with everyone.”

You don’t have to be a native Floridian to remember that disaster. I hadn’t moved here yet when the bridge was hit, but I followed news about the disaster and I still remember that horrible feeling when I first learned so many had perished when their vehicles, one a Greyhound bus, fell into the Bay. I didn’t think of it at the time, but years later after the film with Richard Gere came out, I learned about the book The Mothman Prophecies. The book had come out in 1975. The book recounted reports in Virginia of a winged being dubbed “Mothman”, with the author connecting that creature to UFO theories and to a bridge collapse in Ohio years earlier. I haven’t read the book, but the theory on the surface is very hard for me to take seriously.

There’s an interesting essay about the Mothman book by John Keel. Written by William Grabowski, the essay was published at Medium in 2017.

I think it’s pretty natural for imaginations and emotions to run a bit amok when a bridge collapses. We have many bridges here in Jacksonville (FL), and I confess a couple of them give me slight shivers every time I drive or ride over them.

The Skyway disaster, just like the Silver Bridge collapse in Ohio in 1967 killing 46, produced much conjecture and fanciful story-telling in the aftermath. The Ohio bridge was deemed to have been carrying heavier loads than it was built for; that bridge collapsed during rush hour.

News channel 8 (Tampa; WFLA) ran a story shortly before Halloween a couple years ago about ghost tales related to Tampa, and the Skyway Bridge is included. Predictably, some claim to have seen a ghost bus while others claim to have seen a woman hitchhiking on the bridge.  Where there is epic tragedy, there will be strange tales, as the Channel 8 story demonstrates:

“The ghost bus is seen by folks visiting the fishing pier, which is part of the old bridge. Many said they feel an actual breeze and even catch a whiff of the gasoline from the moving bus.

More than 200 people have jumped from highest point of the Skyway to kill themselves. And some motorists report “a weird unexplained light phenomenon” in the water under the bridge.

The best story is that late at night motorists have slowed down and some have even stopped to help what appears to be a woman standing alone on the bridge. She has a history of climbing into cars before disappearing from the passenger’s seat.”

I will say I am not a complete skeptic, having had a few very unusual, inexplicable events in my own life, but none related to a bridge.

Hopefully the new documentary will be released by next year because 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the Skyway Bridge tragedy. That day 35 people began their morning with a journey that ended at their graves. The grief families must have experienced is unimaginable, and the grief the freighter pilot experienced plagued him for the rest of his days. It is a good thing to correct the media narrative of that day.

The filmmakers have established the Facebook page The Skyway Bridge Disaster Documentary to keep people informed about progress on the film and the release date for same.

There is also video of news coverage as it broke that day, with the Skyway disaster coverage provided to Facebook by NBC News.

(Kay B. Day/May 14, 2019)



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