Author Carolyn Williford found an unexpected inspiration for her newest release Bridge to a Distant Star. In the book, several people from all different walks of life, and all facing major dilemas, are united in their fight to survive a horrific bridge collapse. Today the author shares a look back at the accident that inspired her new inspirational mainstream tale.
On May 9, 1980, thirty-five people plunged into the Tampa Bay. Unbeknownst to them, a portion of the expansive Skyway Bridge had quite literally disappeared, and they were sent tumbling into the raging waters below. This actual incident that I’ve incorporated into my novel was a horrific tragedy—one that can leave a lasting impression on all who cross any bridge that spans a large body of water. Trust me in this: you will never again do so without probably at least one tense, insecure look ahead. And down. You’ll most likely have a strong urge to make sure that every section of that bridge is indeed still there!
That particular day was much like I describe it in my story: the weather was awful, with tropical-storm force winds, rain pouring down and visibility near zero. Captain John Lerro was attempting to pilot his over two football-fields-long freighter, the Summit Venture, under the Skyway during the height of the storm. It was terrible timing and precipitous—not only could Captain Lerro not visibly see ahead, but his radar failed him too. He was left to steer virtually blind, attempting a thirteen-degree turn before maneuvering through an 864-foot-wide space. When the winds pushed him off course, the Summit rammed into one of the main supports; the pier and the roadway above collapsed into the bay. And then six cars, one small truck, and a Greyhound bus followed.
Only one miraculously survived the 150-foot fall. Wesley MacIntire’s pickup truck’s angle of descent may have saved him in that his truck first hit the freighter before falling into the water. He swam to the surface and was rescued by the crew of the Summit. But no one else swam to safety or was rescued by emergency personnel, and the scene that divers described is the stuff of nightmares: sixty feet below the surface they discovered twisted wreckage of metal contorted like a child’s building set; trapped victims in the cars and bus; eerily quiet waters devoid of any marine life, for evidently the noise and carnage of the disaster had chased away all marine creatures.
The stories of those on the bridge were no less frightening. A yellow Buick with four passengers skidded to a stop a mere fourteen inches from the edge of that abyss. Richard Hornbuckle had slowed down to around twenty miles per hour because of the nasty weather; his defensive driving clearly saved him and his three passengers from certain death. Anthony Gattus was sitting in the back seat, and he recalled seeing the fated Greyhound (carrying twenty-six) pass them just before the tragedy.
You have to wonder: If the driver of the Greyhound had slowed down…and stayed behind that yellow Buick….would those ten men and sixteen women have survived? We can only speculate—just like we can only imagine what all the victims were thinking, feeling, experiencing in their last moments. My musings created the fictional Maureen and Aubrey; Fran, Charles and Charlie; and Michal. May those who died live again through the enduring spirit of these characters.
You can pick up your own copy of Williford's Bridge to a Distant Star in stores now.