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

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.

"It's a miserable existence," he said. "I spent thousands of hours thinking about that day. Thousands of hours. Trying to figure out: Why me? You know what the answer is? Because. Why me? Because. Why the poor souls who died? Because. In other words, no answers."

"If I had life to do over again," he said, "I'd be a flute player."

Lerro returned to Tampa, only to have his 21-year marriage disintegrate into divorce. He lived on disability and pension checks and shared a small townhouse with his adult son, Charles, filling it with comforting things: a cat, marine paintings, books and classical recordings.

And he enrolled in the University of South Florida, earning a master's degree in counseling. He volunteered to talk with rape victims and potential suicides at the Hillsborough County Crisis Center and with convicts at the Tampa Probation and Restitution Center.

When Lerro counseled convicts he would say: "Everybody screws up. I know. I invented screwup. When you get caught screwing up, keep your dignity. If you've lost that, you've lost everything. Self-esteem is the most important thing."

But his comments to a reporter showed it was not as easy to do as to say: "Piloting was beautiful. Piloting was wonderful. But the bridge was the antithesis of piloting. It was a screwup, and there it is for all the world to see. It was the storm and the wrong decision.... The radar was out; the visuals were out. I ought to have put the ship aground.... I was between the devil and the deep blue sea. That's what I have to live with now."

With his body as well as his mind in pain, he added, "Sanity is the most important thing in my life. I'm not going to rethink the Skyway now. How could I ever make up for one death? I can't. Having a hand in 35 deaths? No way."

Lerro tried to find an author to write a book that would cleanse his reputation and his memories. He spent hundreds of hours with two screenwriters who drafted a screenplay but never got the movie made.

In July, a Florida teenager, Christian Knightly, screened a 50-minute docudrama on the disaster, called "The Fallen Sky," in a small Clearwater theater.

By the 20th anniversary of the disaster--two years ago--Lerro had become too ill to work as a counselor and was confined primarily to his bed or wheelchair. He commented briefly for the St. Petersburg Times, demonstrating that he was still suffering from more than his disease.

"You know, you don't want to hit a bridge," he said. "Not that bridge. Not any bridge."

Asked if he had counseled criminals as one screwup to another, he backed away from the term he had so often used to describe himself and his collision with the bridge: "I don't find anything of myself in that word."

Lerro, who is survived by his wife, Laila; his son, Charles; and a stepdaughter, Angel Klinsmith; added philosophically: "Life throws you a lot of things that aren't bearable, and you have to find a way to bear them."

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