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John Lerro, 59; Harbor Pilot Haunted by Role in Deadly Bridge Accident

September 09, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John E. Lerro, the harbor pilot who crashed the phosphate freighter Summit Venture into Tampa Bay's Sunshine Skyway Bridge two decades ago, plunging 35 people to their deaths, has died. He was 59.

Lerro, who spent the rest of his life seeking redemption and peace, died Aug. 31 in Tampa of multiple sclerosis after slipping into a coma earlier that week.

"He finally quit being haunted by what happened. He finally could stop thinking about it all," said Laila Lerro, his wife of four years.

Lerro was 37 and near the top of his profession when the accident occurred May 9, 1980.

He was guiding the 608-foot freighter into the Port of Tampa when a sudden squall with gale-force winds engulfed the empty, high-riding ship less than a mile from the bridge. Visibility plummeted to near zero.

If he could anchor--and the emphasis was on if--he feared the wind might push the Summit Venture into an oncoming ship. So he decided to shoot for the 800-foot hole between the bridge piers, hoping to steer safely under the high center of the bridge.

"There was a large degree of sliding due to the wind. I'm sure the vessel moved laterally," he testified. "I figured she'd make the center span."

She didn't.

The ship slammed into a secondary support pier of the vast bridge. A 1,297-foot chunk of the highway collapsed, and six cars, one pickup truck and a bus fell 150 feet to the water. The pickup driver survived after his truck bounced off the freighter's prow, but 35 other commuters drowned.

A new $244-million bridge was opened in 1987. It's bigger, better and safer, with a clearance of 175 feet, rather than 150; a ship's channel 1,200 feet wide, rather than 800; and concrete islands and bumpers protecting supports from wayward ships. The old Skyway, with its gruesome ghosts, was torn down and its approaches were converted to fishing piers.

Lerro could not be reconstructed so easily.

Before the accident, the deputy harbor pilot had worked his way up to ship's master, taking container ships to Japan, passenger ships to South America and chemical tankers to Europe. He was qualified to guide ships through the Panama Canal and had steered nearly 800 vessels the size of two football fields over the tricky 50-mile stretch from the Gulf of Mexico through Tampa Bay.

He was scheduled for promotion to full-fledged harbor pilot two days after the accident, with a jump in pay from $45,000 a year to $100,000.

A kid from the Bronx who once danced ballet at Carnegie Hall, Lerro had gone to sea because it seemed romantic and exciting. He spoke lyrically of his job as a pilot: "This little man is moving that big thing. You're a very significant person. It was the reason for getting up, the reason to be.... I was so proud of myself as a pilot ... proud of my ability."

But the bridge disaster changed all that. Lerro lost his health, his career and his wife and became so depressed he contemplated suicide.

For weeks after the accident, he and his family holed up in a hotel, avoiding threats and false accusations that he was an alcoholic. His pilot's license was suspended. For months he was the subject of state and federal hearings.

Florida state officials absolved him of blame and reinstated his license. The National Transportation Safety Board voted 3 to 2 that Lerro had been partly responsible but said that other factors, including the severe storm, had contributed to the accident.

In a dissent, the board chairman, James B. King, said: "He acted reasonably in the situation in which he found himself."

"All the world thought John was guilty," Steve Yerrid, his attorney, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2000. "John got some partial, personal salvation from our defense that the storm caused the catastrophe, and the storm was an act of God. Until John understood that God had a hand in this, he was the only culprit."

"This is a man who has been to hell," Yerrid said. "It took a long time to extricate him from that, and even today, 20 years later, I think he only gets out on passes."

Lerro returned to work for most of 1981, but then noticed he was having trouble keeping his balance as he climbed ships' ladders. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that hardens tissue in the brain or spinal column, eroding muscle control and impairing thought. On Dec. 24, 1981, Lerro turned in his pilot's license for good.

With the life he loved gone, he tried repeatedly to build a new one. He sent out dozens of resumes for various jobs, and got back dozens of refusals.

Then in 1985 he was hired to teach nautical science for a semester at his old alma mater, the State University of New York's Maritime College. He bunked in cramped, damp quarters aboard the teaching vessel Empire State anchored under a bridge and told cadets bluntly: "If you misjudge, you've got hell to pay."

Lerro was even more candid in a St. Petersburg Times interview that spring, one of his earliest after the accident.

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