Ship's pilot John E. Lerro, who developed multiple sclerosis soon after the 1980 tragedy, is dead at 59.
September 3, 2002 Tuesday
St. Petersburg Times
TAMPA - For 22 years, John E. Lerro lived with the memory of the day he piloted a 608-foot freighter into the Sunshine Skyway bridge, killing 35 people.
Last week, he found peace as he slipped into a coma after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, said his wife Laila Lerro.
"He finally quit being haunted by what happened," she said. "He finally could stop thinking about it all." Mr. Lerro, who grew up in the Bronx and once danced ballet at Carnegie Hall, died Saturday (Aug. 31, 2002). He was 59.
"He was the bravest person I ever met," his wife said. "He endured so much, for so many years, and did it without losing his sense of humor."
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Mr. Lerro served as a merchant seaman, rising through the ranks to ship's master. He traveled to Japan and South America and Europe. He qualified to guide ships through the Panama Canal.
In 1976, he began piloting freighters, tankers and passenger ships from the Gulf of Mexico 58.4 miles up Tampa Bay to the Port of Tampa, one of the longest shipping channels in the world. He made the run up and back more than 800 times.
"I was proud of myself as a pilot," Mr. Lerro said in an interview in 1985. "I was proud of my ability."
By 1980, "the outsider from New York" was earning $40,000 a year. Then came the vote to promote him from deputy to senior status, which came with a six-figure salary. In early May of that year, Mr. Lerro arranged a loan to pay for the hefty initiation fee. He was to close on the loan May 9, 1980.
Before going to the bank, he had only one thing to do: pilot in the Summit Venture.
Mr. Lerro was in the ship's pilot house when the first of several mishaps arose. The calm winds rose in the southwest to a tropical-storm force. Heavy rain began to pound the ship until he could no longer see the bow.
Then, just before a treacherous course change, the shipboard radar failed. Just four months earlier, in nearly the same location, the tanker Capricorn had rammed and sunk the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn, killing 23 men.
Mr. Lerro judged it too risky to turn the Summit Venture out of the shipping channel to the north to anchor and ride out the storm. Stopping would risk having the 60 mph winds push the ship into the Sunshine Skyway bridge. And turning around meant a possible collision with an outgoing tanker.
Just before the collision, Mr. Lerro saw part of the bridge superstructure directly ahead. He tried to slow the ship. It was too late.
At 7:33 a.m., the Summit Venture smashed into a bridge support. The roadway above gave way. Mr. Lerro frantically called the Coast Guard for help.
"Get emergency . . . all the emergency equipment out to the Skyway bridge," he said. "Vessel has just hit the Skyway bridge. The Skyway bridge is down! Get all emergency equipment out to the Skyway bridge. The Skyway bridge is down. This is a Mayday. Emergency situation. (Nearly screaming) Stop the traffic on that Skyway bridge!"
His pleas came too late for a bus full of passengers and several cars that plunged the 150-feet into the water.
For weeks afterward, Mr. Lerro and his family stayed in a hotel. He was threatened and was called an alcoholic. One person telephoned his son, 13 years old at the time, and asked what it was like to have a "murderer" for a father, Mr. Lerro said later.
"Someone stole my Irish setter and kept her for three days," Mr. Lerro's attorney Steve Yerrid said in an interview two years ago. "They beat her and urinated on her and then put her back on my porch. . . . That's the kind of atmosphere it was."
A state inquiry cleared Mr. Lerro of negligence in 1980. A Coast Guard inquiry found Mr. Lerro's decision to proceed in zero visibility contributed to the crash but that many other factors beyond his control also played a big role.
Soon after, Mr. Lerro resumed his career as a harbor pilot. Then, several months later, he began having trouble maintaining his balance and climbing ladders. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that hardens tissue in the brain or spinal column, eroding muscle control and impairing thought.
He had to quit. He returned to New York and taught at the Maritime Academy, his alma mater. He lived in a cramped room aboard a ship and thought about suicide.
"If I had my life to do over again," he said. "I'd be a flute player."
Mr. Lerro returned to Tampa and enrolled at the University of South Florida, earning a master's degree in counseling. He volunteered at Hillsborough's crisis hot line and at a center for criminals on probation. In 1998, he married Laila.
Mr. Lerro said around the time of the 20th anniversary of the accident that he and his wife tried to keep to themselves. By then, the multiple sclerosis kept him mostly in bed or in a wheelchair.
Even 20 years later, he didn't like people to know where he lived in Hillsborough County. He said he had done his best to hang on to his sense of humor.
"Life throws you a lot of things that aren't bearable, and you have to find a way to bear them," he said.
He spoke at that time of how he wished the old bridge had had fenders protecting its supports like the new one that opened in 1987. The channel passage beneath the bridge was also widened from 800 to 1,200 feet. And the new bridge was constructed farther away from that treacherous turn in the channel that the Summit Venture failed to negotiate.
"You know, you don't want to hit a bridge," he said. "Not that bridge. Not any bridge. That bridge was not fendered. Lots of bridges in the world are not fendered."
About three months ago, Mr. Lerro's battle with the disease took a turn for the worse, his wife said. He didn't eat or talk much. On Wednesday, he slipped into a coma from which he did not awake.
Mr. Lerro is survived by a son, Charles, a stepdaughter, Angel Klinsmith, and his wife. The family is arranging a funeral service.
"Near the end, I could tell he was looking back on his life," his wife said. "No one deserves to go through what he went through."
- Information from Times files was used in this report.
© Copyright 2002 Times Publishing Company