Tragedy On The Skyway

I’ve been wanting to buy an RV rig to travel around the country teaching workshops and promoting my books. To that end, I’ve looked at all shapes and sizes of vehicle from old, vintage thirty-two foot RV’s to customized travel vans with enough room to sleep, cook and take my dog and cat along for the trip.

One day I came across a big box RV along the side of the road. I called the owner and since I was the first to ask he gave me an extensive tour of the 30′ by 15’ motorhome. I was sold on the excellent upkeep and his willingness to teach me how to drive the behemoth. And here was my doubt and fear. When I sat in the driver’s seat and looked out the left side mirror all I could see was the side of the RV because it jutted out wide enough to cut off the view. And when I looked up into the rearview mirror, I saw the back bedroom and shower stall with no sight of traffic coming up behind me. Suddenly I was terrified to drive this thing even a mile down the road much less around the country.

I told the owner just that and said I needed to go home and think about spending $25,000 on a vehicle I might not be able to drive. When I got home, I googled the make and year of the RV and scrolled down the long list of used vehicles for sale, and then a sentence popped out at me,

“Beginner mistakes you don’t want to make driving this RV.”

Intrigued I opened up the site, and there was a grey-haired man, with a big round belly sitting behind the wheel of a tour bus size RV doling out advice from his extensive list of experience. He started out by naming the RV I was considering buying and went on to list the mistakes he had made and ones I should avoid.

“First thing people is always pull wide when entering a gas station lest you collide with the cement poles protecting the fuel pump. I damn near took off the rear corner of my new RV and left a good size dent that cost a pretty penny to repair.”

This mental image had me laughing. The picture of me attempting to pull into a gas station in the big box on wheels without taking down at least two gas pumps was much more likely.

“Second is when crossing up, and over bridges where they have put down traffic cones stay well clear of those cones, I took out at least a dozen cones my first time over a bridge and half a dozen the time I was going over the Sunshine Skyway.”

And then in the video there he was in his bus size rig climbing to the top of the Sunshine Skyway, and the cones sat to his right on the road guiding traffic left. A moment ago I’d been laughing, but suddenly I realized where he was and that the old Skyway bridge must have been torn down because it was no longer there.

I turned off the computer and sat for a moment thinking about what I had just seen. It had been many years since I crossed over the bridge linking St.Petersburg to Sarasota. I remembered the accident back in 1980. It was during a blinding thunderstorm when a big freighter collided with a bridge support column knocking a 1,200-foot section of the roadway into the water below. Six cars, a truck, and a bus plunged 150 feet into grey churning waters, killing 35 people.

I remember crossing the bridge a few years later on a Greyhound bus, escaping from New York City to live near the white sands of Siesta Key. It was early morning when we crossed over the Skyway, but this time it was sunlight that hit the abandoned bridge in a certain way that reminded me of a foggy morning when something had gone tragically wrong.

Not long after I settled in Sarasota, I needed to be in Tampa, my small Fiat was acting up, and I didn’t want to risk a breakdown, so I called my brother and told him to pick me up at the Tampa Greyhound station around 10:00 PM that night. I boarded the bus in Sarasota at 8:30 PM and took the front seat to the right of the driver. I wanted to see the bridge through the big window as we climbed up into the sunset over Tampa Bay. A young black woman took the seat across the aisle behind the driver, and the few other passengers spread out towards the back of the bus, the track lights above each window casting a ghostly pallor on all our faces.

The bus driver was a friendly sort, had greeted us each at the door, taking our tickets, helping with luggage and putting everyone at ease right away. When he pulled the doors shut and backed the bus out of the station, he dimmed the interior lights, and we set off on a journey that I would remember to this day. We made one stop in Bradenton before approaching the Skyway, and when the bridge came into view, I sat forward in anticipation. There was a sound from the woman across the aisle, muffled and indistinct and I surmised that she was a little drunk. Then she surprised us all by blurting out,

“My cousin died when his bus went off the Skyway bridge.”

The driver missed a shift in gears as we hit the base of the bridge and began our climb. I looked over as she started talking about how she and her mother were at the station to pick up her cousin, but the bus never arrived. They waited until someone came to tell them that a Greyhound bus had plunged into the water when a ship hit the pilings and collapsed the bridge. No one had survived. Her voice was sad, without tears, as if she had told this story many times.

I didn’t know what to say. I was out of the country at the time and only knew the events from what I had read in the newspapers. The bus driver told her he was sorry for her loss and that the driver of the fateful bus had been a friend of his.

By this time I’m thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding, have I materialized in a Twilight Zone episode?”

“You knew the driver of that bus?” asked the woman.

“Yes, ma’am I did. We started out of New York City together the day before. When we got into Tallahassee early in the morning, we had breakfast together. Sometimes we would make a wager as to who would get to Sarasota first, you know, just to make it interesting. I had beat him by five minutes the last time, and he was determined to make up for it. We left Tallahassee going south at a good speed, but the weather changed by the time we hit Tampa. When we approached St. Petersburg the wind was at gale force, and I could see the waves kicking up out on the bay. A big storm was brewing that’s for sure.”

As he was talking, I realized he was referring to the morning of the accident. I looked over at the woman across the aisle, and our eyes grew big in acknowledgment of what he was about to say.

“I could see there was a thick fog at the top of the Skyway, but that wasn’t anything new, so I wasn’t too worried. We approached the traffic light at the bottom of the bridge, and it suddenly turned yellow. I began to slow down, but my buddy accelerated, and he went right through that light and began to ascend into the cloud of fog. The last thing I saw was his smiling face in the side mirror as he tipped a finger to his forehead as much to say, “I’ll see you there first this time.”

“Oh my sweet Jesus,” said the woman across the aisle.

“The light turned green, and we began the climb, but before we got to the top, a man came running out of the fog waving his arms to keep the traffic from moving forward. I stopped the bus and climbed out to see what the problem was, and he told me the bridge had come apart at the top. I asked him if any cars had gone over and he said yes, a few cars and a Greyhound bus.”

He fell silent. I imagined what it must have been like, cars and bus plunging over the edge free falling through space, then a sudden impact as metal hit the water before sinking into the dark depths.

“Jesus Christ.” I managed to mutter. “Why do you keep driving this route? You must relive the accident every time?”

“Sometimes I imagine the scene differently, where the light turns red, and we both stop, or I go through the yellow light and get to the top first. Other times I wonder if he would have jumped the yellow light if we hadn’t wagered on the outcome.”

I imagined the screams and fear of the riders in the bus, suddenly jerked awake from a deep sleep as they hit head first slamming into the water. There was no time to wonder, to pray, to say goodbye.

I couldn’t resist asking. “Do you ever wonder if it was you who ran the yellow light?”

“No ma’am I don’t. I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if we both went over at the same time, and then I have to stop thinking about it, or it will make me crazy.”

We pulled into the Tampa station right on time without going through any yellow lights or racing to get to our destination. The driver stepped down from his seat, opened the doors and extended his hand to help us down. I held his hand a moment longer than was comfortable. He looked into my face and saw the sympathy he had probably seen in everyone who knew his story.

“Good night now,” he said, “and have a good evening.”