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Date of Issue: August 09, 2007

Sandscript

Disasters to the north, looming out in the water

There is a phrase in journalism that goes something like, "It's a train wreck. You don't want to watch, but you can't help it."

The same dreadful experience came about Sept. 11 when planes started to crash into the World Trade Centers in New York. Don't look. Look.

It happened again last Wednesday night with the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minn. To date, seven are dead, dozens injured, scores left missing.

You can't stop looking.

As events were unveiled, the "Skyway Disaster" kept a forefront again for some of us who were around in the 1980s. TV brought that issue up again and again as a horrible example of bridge matters gone horribly awry.

 Below is an article that has appeared before but is somewhat poignant now based on the catastrophe in Minnesota.

 

Skyway Disaster

 May 9, 1980, dawned but barely on Tampa Bay. A heavy fog dropped visibility to only a few yards, and a fast-moving squall was heading toward the mouth of the bay when harbor pilot Capt. John Lerro and Bruce Atkins, co-pilot trainee, boarded the "Summit Venture" in the Gulf of Mexico to guide the ship to the Port of Tampa.

 The freighter was en route to Tampa to on-load 28,000 tons of phosphate, then on to the Orient. It was empty as it passed Egmont Key, its 608-foot-long hull riding high in the water.

 Lerro and Atkins boarded the ship at 6:25 a.m. The ship's master, Capt. Hsuing Chu Lui, relinquished control of the "Summit Venture" to Lerro, who let Atkins take the helm.

 As the Sunshine Skyway Bridge drew near, the squall hit. Visibility dropped, and a trio of lookouts went to the bow to watch for the markers that guide ships through the 800-foot-wide opening of the bridge. Lerro took over from Atkins.

 But as the "Summit Venture" neared a tricky turn in the channel, the storm hit with a vengeance. The empty ship skittered across the water under the force of the wind, estimated at 50 mph. A break in the rain provided one of the most horrible sights a ship captain could imagine - a bridge abutment loomed out of the darkness dead ahead, fully 800 feet from where it was expected to have been.

 Lerro ordered the anchor dropped and the engines full astern. It was too little too late, and the 19,734-ton ship hit the southern bridge piling, crumpling the metal roadbed into the water, at 7:38 a.m.

 Car after car after truck after bus drove off the edge of the bridge until one car, creeping through the storm, screeched to a halt only 14 inches from the yawning gap. Its four occupants scrambled for safety and began stopping other vehicles.

 Of the eight passenger vehicles and one Greyhound bus that went over the edge, only one person survived the plunge and was pulled to safety aboard the "Summit Venture." On board the ship, the lone lookout who remained at the bow survived the bridge span's collapse by ducking between two huge stanchions and crawled out from beneath the 90 feet of roadbed that came to rest only inches above his head.

 Recovery of the 35 bodies claimed by the bridge and ship crash took almost a week. The twisted debris required explosives to break, and cranes were needed to lift the vehicles to the surface. The force of the crash ripped the top of the bus along its length.

 Divers recovered many bodies that day and transported them to Mullet Key's Fort Desoto Park. Others washed ashore days later. Clearing the channel of debris so other ships could pass through the bridge took weeks.

 The Florida Department of Transportation was taken to task for not providing adequate protection around the bridge pilings that could have halted a ship before it struck the bridge itself. Also, the bridge opening was too narrow for modern ships to safely navigate, critics charged.

 Even the channel leading to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge took some heat, as its odd dogleg eastbound was less than a mile from the span. The marker where the turn takes place is only seven boat lengths from the bridge, leaving scant time to make any last-minute course corrections.

 The $240 million Sunshine Skyway Bridge of today was finished in 1987. It does have a sturdy fender system around its pilings, a wider opening for ships to pass through, and with the new construction has a channel that is more user-friendly.

 Much of the old Skyway was retained as fishing piers, and the central span's debris used as artificial reefs near those piers.

 Yet there are few who drive under the bright yellow girders supporting the graceful new Skyway who don't peer anxiously left and right to see if another freighter is bearing down on the bridge, and reflect on that early morning years ago.

 And, after last week's tragedy in Minnesota, the same thoughts must be running through motorists' minds as they now traverse the majestic span across Tampa Bay.

 

More concerns

Hurricanes will take the forefront next week, as Dr. William Gray and Phil Klotzbach issue their revised hurricane predictions for the 2007 year.

We've heard from them, both of Colorado State University, plus the National Hurricane Center and others, that we're in for an "above-average" number of storms. To date, we've had three named storms, none of which really amounted to anything but some problems with shipping, and none of which became hurricanes.

Yet the predictions earlier this year called for 17 storms. It will be interesting to see the newest forecast, which will appear elsewhere this week in The Islander.

There is bad news on the global front for storms, though.

Some researchers have predicted that we're in an upward spiral of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean in the near future, due mostly to ocean warming and a general rise in temperatures.

According to a historical study published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London - and pardon all the numbers here -there were six tropical storms per year from 1905 through 1930. That number jumped to 10 storms from 1931 through 1994, on average. The storm count rose to 15 storms a year from 1995 through 2005. And there were 10 tropical storms in 2006, judged by some to be a "mild" year.

The scientists observed that North Atlantic Ocean water temperatures have increased about 1.3 degrees in the past 100-year study period, acerbating storm formation.

As with all things scientific, there are naysayers to the findings of the group. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official called the study "sloppy science" that neglected a lot of key data. Other scientists lauded the effort of the London group.

Go figure.

 

More confusion

Dr. Gray has been doing hurricane forecasts for years. He had an article published in the Wall Street Journal last week regarding his thoughts about global warming and hurricane intensity, republished in the St. Petersburg Times.

Gray has long pooh-poohed the concept of increased fossil fuel emissions, greenhouse gas increases and resulting global warming as a spur for hurricane formation in the Atlantic.

Yes, there are more storms, but Gray and his colleagues believe the storm increase and intensity are caused by deepwater ocean current flow, which runs in cycles that he's been able to monitor. It's a 20-year cycle, and we're in the midst of that sort of intense time in the Atlantic basin.

As he wrote in the Journal, "The warming theorists - most of whom earnestly believe that human activity has triggered nature's wrath - have the ears of the news media. But there is another plausible explanation, supported by decades of physical observation. The spate of recent destructive hurricanes may have little or nothing to do with greenhouse gases and climate change, and everything to do with the Atlantic Ocean's currents."

 

Sandscipt factoid

According to a Harvard School of Public Safety poll of residents of southern U.S. coastal towns, "33 percent of participants would not evacuate, compared to 25 percent of participants in a 2006 survey.

Dumb.

When the big one comes, leave. How hard is that to figure out?

Remember Katrina? Rita? Charley?

Just remember this simple phrase when a hurricane looms on the Gulf of Mexico or in the Atlantic Ocean:

Run away. Fast.

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