The story of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the bridge over Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay is a large natural harbour, in the Gulf of Mexico. The bay opens up in front of the city of Tampa, on the west coast of Florida, and is spanned by 6 different bridges, some of them of considerable length. Take the Courtney Campbell Causeway, for example, almost 16 kilometres long, that was opened in 1934. Or the Howard Frankland Bridge, 4.8 kilometres long, opened in 1960. Or the Gandy Bridge, which has been rebuilt several times since its construction in 1924 and extends for a total of 4.5 kilometres. However, the most famous bridge over Tampa Bay is probably the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, 6.7 kilometres long, that featured in one of the most dramatic disasters in the history of Florida. For the Italians, the story of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge must inevitably remind them of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, for it also involved a tragic collapse, in which 35 people died. Let’s take a look then at the history of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge: the history of the original bridge

The construction of a high suspension bridge was proposed back in 1926, in roughly the same location where the Sunshine Skyway Bridge stands today. The project was approved the following year, but it was later blocked as a result of the Great Depression. However, in 1929 a very different idea was proposed: instead of a bridge, it was suggested that an underwater tunnel should be constructed that would connect Pinellas Point with Piney Point, running 12 metres beneath the waters of the bay. This idea was soon dismissed, however. Meanwhile, all through these years people crossed the bay using the ferry service, which became gradually more efficient with departures every 30 minutes; that is, until the boats were confiscated for use by the military during World War II.

The construction of the bridge had to wait until the end of the war, with work actually beginning on 19 October 1950. From the start of construction, over 500 workers were involved in the project, under the supervision of the Virginia Bridge Company and Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall and McDonald. Over 5 million kilos of steel were used.

The bridge was inaugurated on 6 September 1954: at that time, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa was one of the longest bridges in the world, and the longest continuous bridge in the USA. With the busy shipping traffic in the bay of Tampa, the central section of the bridge featured an opening of 263 metres. The bridge was supported by 32 concrete pillars, each 41 metres apart except for the section over the shipping lane. At the time, the bridge consisted of a single road with two lanes, with no overtaking permitted.

To allow traffic to flow more smoothly, a second span was constructed in 1969, adding a further 2 lanes to the road, which were inaugurated in 1971: from that time on, the original span was used for northbound traffic, while the new span served the southbound traffic.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster in 1980

1980 was a dark year for Tampa Bay. In January of that year, a US coastguard cutter collided with another ship – an oil tanker – close to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, causing the death of 23 people. Before people could recover from that tragedy, another occurred: on 9 May 1980 there was a serious accident directly involving the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. At 7.38 that morning, the 185-metre freighter the MV Summit Venture hit a support column on the second span, the one opened in 1971. The collision was caused by a sudden squall that led to the crew losing control of the ship. The collision was extremely violent, causing the immediate collapse of about 370 metres of the span. Six cars, a lorry and a Greyhound bus were on that stretch of the bridge at the time, all of which plummeted into the waters of Tampa Bay. A total of 35 people died. The only person to survive the fall was a man whose pick-up truck bounced off the hull of the freighter before ending up in the water: his name was Wesley MacIntire, and after managing to escape from his vehicle he was rescued by the freighter itself.

Some vehicles managed to brake sharply at the time of the collision, however, stopping just before the drop: a photo of Paul Hornbuckle’s car that stopped only a few centimetres from the brink of the collapsed bridge will remain through history, an image which in many ways resembles the photo of the green Basko truck on the Morandi Bridge.

The construction of the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge

After the accident, the older span had to serve traffic in both directions again while a new project was planned. The idea of a tunnel was again considered and again set aside; finally, it was decided to construct a new bridge with a shipping lane 50% wider for ships crossing the waters of Tampa Bay. But that’s not all: to ensure greater safety for the bridge in the event of accidental collisions from passing ships, concrete pilings known as “dolphins” were planned right from the design phase, to protect the bridge’s support piers.

Construction on the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge began in January 1983, with the opening ceremony taking place on 30 April 1987. We should add that on the day immediately before the opening, a 23-metre fishing boat collided with the concrete bumpers: the bridge did not suffer any damage, but the boat sank.

Just 3 years later, in 1990, the original bridge that ran parallel to the new one was demolished: special care was devoted to removing all the elements from beneath the waters in the channel. The demolition process was completed in 2008.