By Bill DeYoung, author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down
My research for Skyway took me to the Tampa Bay area many, many times. On an early trip—before I’d done the first interview—I went looking for a memorial, a monument, or even a simple roadside sign that commemorated in some way the blackest day in Florida history.
I found nothing.
Even a visit to the St. Petersburg Museum of History was fruitless; over a century of local news and progress was detailed there, impressively, but there was not a single mention of the 1980 ship strike that destroyed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and sent 35 people plummeting 150 feet to their deaths.
Once Skyway was finished, and published, I decided to find out what it would take to have something erected near the site of the old bridge.
In 2013 and 2014 I corresponded with the Florida Parks Service, which oversees the Fishing Pier State Park, and the Department of Transportation, which owns the land just north of the piers, the rest area also known as Blackthorn Memorial Park.
After a lot of back-and-forth, I was informed that I needed a specific act of the Florida legislature to allow us to put up a small memorial.
My emailing campaign went into high gear as I approached numerous key legislators.
No one replied. No one.
Finally, I wrote to State Senator Arthenia Joyner from Pinellas County’s District 19, and I was asked to draft specific wording for what I wanted to do.
This was added to a transportation bill, which passed in the Florida Senate but was defeated in the House.
That’s the last I heard for many months. In December 2014, I wrote to the local DOT office and asked about re-energizing the project. To my astonishment, I was told the bill had been re-submitted, in June, had passed and was signed into law by Governor Scott on July 1.
Fast-forward. Once they got on board, FDOT could not have been more cooperative. The permitting process was smooth, the issue of perpetual maintenance was dealt with expediently, and they’ve been there every step of the way.
I formed a 501(c)3 non-profit called the Skyway Memorial Project, Inc., and began soliciting donations in January. Within 30 days, we had the approximately $9,000 we needed to build a simple granite memorial with a bronze plaque.
It was incredible how the community responded to our efforts. So many donations came with notes saying “About time!” or “I always wondered why this was never done.” Of course, I’d always felt the same way.
On Saturday, May 9—the 35th anniversary of the Skyway tragedy—we’re going to dedicate the memorial. We contacted as many family members as we could locate – many trails have simply gone cold after three and a half decades—and I’m happy to say that many, from all over Florida and from as far away as California and Canada, are planning to attend.
We’re expecting lots of people from the Tampa Bay community, too—it was their black day, and it’s their memorial. I hope the sun will be shining.
Bill DeYoung is a native of St. Petersburg, Florida. Nationally recognized for his music journalism, he was a writer and editor at various Florida newspapers for three decades.
Join Bill DeYoung at a public dedication ceremony for the Sunshine Skyway Memorial at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 9. The ceremony will be held next to Blackthorn Memorial Park, located at the Pinellas County rest area on the north side of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Speakers will include St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman and representatives from the families of several victims.