Collapse Stirs Memories of 1980 Florida Tragedy

The collapse of an interstate bridge into the Arkansas River on Sunday stirred vivid memories for a Florida rescue diver involved in a similar tragedy 22 years earlier.

The May 9, 1980, collapse of the Sunshine Skyway into Tampa Bay killed 35 people after a ship hit the bridge during a storm and sent vehicles plummeting into the water.

"It's a very horrific experience to just see it and think of people trapped in their vehicles," said Bill Covert, who was part of the search and rescue effort.

In the Tampa Bay collapse, the 609-foot freighter Summit Venture was navigating through the narrow, winding shipping channel of Tampa Bay when a blinding squall knocked out the ship's radar.

The ship was seven-tenths of a mile from the bridge and at a crucial turning point. The captain decided to steer the ship toward the shipping passage beneath the bridge, but missed.

The ship sheared a bridge support, dropping a 1,400-foot section of concrete roadway during morning rush hour. Seven vehicles, including a bus with 26 people aboard, fell 150 feet into the water.

Rescue efforts were curtailed by storms, and the conditions under water were extremely hazardous, Covert said.

Today, the $250 million replacement bridge that carries traffic across Tampa Bay is guarded by an elaborate bridge protection system to prevent similar tragedies, Covert said.

"I had hoped, when the Skyway went down, it would be the last one," he said.