The Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a bridge spanning Tampa Bay, Florida, with a cable-stayed main span, and a total length of 21,877 feet (4.1 miles or approximately 6.67 km). It is part of I-275 (SR 93) and US 19 (SR 55), connecting St. Petersburg in Pinellas County and Terra Ceia in Manatee County, Florida, passing through Hillsborough County waters. Construction of the current bridge began in 1982, and the completed bridge was dedicated on February 7, 1987. The new bridge cost $244 million to build, and was opened to traffic on April 20, 1987. It replaced an older bridge constructed in 1954 and partly destroyed in a collision in 1980. It is constructed of steel and concrete. Steel cables clad in 84 9-inch (229 mm) steel tubes (42 per pylon) along the center line of the bridge support the main span. It was designed by the Figg & Muller Engineering Group (who also designed the popular Seven Mile Bridge), and built by the American Bridge Company.
The original Sunshine Skyway Bridge
The present bridge replaces a steel cantilever bridge of the same name. The original two-lane bridge built by the Virginia Bridge Company was opened to traffic on September 6, 1954, with a similar structure built parallel and to the west of it in 1969 to make it a four-lane bridge and bring it to Interstate standards. Opening of the newer span was delayed until 1971 for reinforcing of the south main pier, which had cracked due to insufficient supporting pile depth. The second span was used for all southbound traffic, while the original span was converted to carry northbound traffic.
The old bridge replaced a ferry from Point Pinellas to Piney Point. US 19 was extended from St. Petersburg to its current end north The original Sunshine Skyway Bridge is featured in the old-time radio series "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar" in the episode "The Fancy Bridgework Matter" (11/22/1959) and in the original opening credits to the 1988 Superboy TV series which showed the hero flying over the damaged original span and then turning to view the new bridge under construction.
The Blackthorn tragedy
On January 28, 1980, the 180 ft Iris class buoy tender USCGC Blackthorn was outbound from Tampa Bay, having just completed a total refit, as the 605 ft tanker Capricorn was inbound. Having just been overtaken by a brightly lit cruise ship, the Blackthorn had maneuvered into the center of the channel to allow the passenger ship to pass. As a consequence of the cruise ship's lights, the Blackthorn was unable to see the approaching Capricorn in the night's darkness. As the two ships approached, the Blackthorn gave two short whistles to signal its intention to pass to starboard as the Capricorn crowded the center of the channel. At some point, the Blackthorn, helmed by a junior officer, initiated evasive action but it was already too late. The two ships collided nearly head-on, with the anchor of the tanker imbedding itself in the hull plates of the cutter. At least 6 crewmen of the Blackthorn were trapped by the mangled metal skin of the ship. As the ships' momentum carried each other along, the anchor line of the tanker grew taut and pulled the Blackthorn over, capsizing the smaller ship and resulting in the drowning deaths of 23 crew trapped on board and below decks, approximately 3/4 of a mile from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
The Summit Venture disaster
The southbound span (opened in 1971) of the original bridge was destroyed at 7:30 a.m. on May 9, 1980, when the freighter MV Summit Venture collided with a pier (support column) during a blinding thunderstorm, sending over 1200 feet (366m) of the bridge plummeting into Tampa Bay. The collision caused six cars, a truck, and a Greyhound bus to fall 150 feet (46 m) into the water, killing 35 people. One man, Wesley MacIntire, survived the fall when his car landed on the deck of the Summit Venture before falling into the bay. He sued the company that owned the ship, and settled for $175,000 in 1984. The pilot of the ship, John Lerro, was cleared of wrongdoing by both a state grand jury and a Coast Guard investigation.
In popular culture
Sunshine Skyway Bridge has provided the setting for several films over the years, both credited and uncredited (e.g., Loren Cass and The Punisher (2004)). The bridge is featured in Dennis Lehane's 1997 novel Sacred. In Ben Bova's 2005 novel Powersat, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge were destroyed in a coordinated terrorist attack against the United States. The song "Skyway Avenue" by local band We The Kings is named in reference to the bridge.
In 2012, the United States Postal Service featured the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on a US$5.15 priority mail postage stamp. Carl T. Hermann painted it, and the digital illustration was created by artist Dan Cosgrove. As previously mentioned, the Travel Channel rated the Sunshine Skyway #3 in its special on the "Top 10 Bridges" in the World. The bridge is considered the "flag bridge" of Florida.