At 7:33 a.m. on May 9th, 1980, the freighter MV Summit Venture collided with a pier (support column) of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge during a blinding thunderstorm, sending over 1,200 feet (370 m) of the bridge plummeting into Tampa Bay. The collision caused six cars, a truck, and a Greyhound bus to fall 150 feet into the water, killing 35 people.
One man, Wesley MacIntire, survived the fall when his pickup truck landed on the deck of the Summit Venture before falling into the bay. He sued the company that owned the ship and settled for $175,000 in 1984. The pilot of the ship, John Lerro, was cleared of wrongdoing by both a state grand jury and a Coast Guard investigation.
The south main pier (the one that required reinforcement before completion) withstood the ship strike without significant damage. It was the second pier to the south of it that was destroyed, a secondary pier that was not designed to withstand a large ship strike.
After the Summit Venture disaster, the southbound span was used as a temporary fishing pier and the northbound span was converted back to carry one lane in either direction until the current bridge opened. Before the old bridge was demolished and hauled away in barges, MacIntire (the only survivor in the collapse) was the last person to drive over it. He was accompanied by his wife, and when they reached the top of the bridge, they dropped 35 white carnations into the water, one for each person who died in the disaster. Both the main spans of both the intact northbound bridge and the damaged southbound bridge were demolished in 1993 and the approaches for both old spans were made into the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park.
These approaches sit 1⁄2 mile (800 m) to the south and west of the current bridge. The approaches of the 1950 span were demolished in 2008.
Governor Bob Graham’s idea for the design of the current bridge won out over other proposals, including a tunnel (deemed impractical due to Florida’s high water table) and a simple reconstruction of the broken section of the old bridge that would not have improved shipping conditions. The new bridge’s main span is 50% wider than the old bridge. The piers of the main span and the approaches for 1⁄4 mile (400 m) in either direction are surrounded by large concrete barriers, called “dolphins“, that can protect the bridge piers from collisions by ships larger than the Summit Venture like tankers, container ships, and cruise ships.