Times Photo --
The Sunshine Skyway bridge.
By DAVID BALLINGRUD,
©St. Petersburg Times,
published May 9, 1995
Check out the guardrails and restraining walls and you will
see evidence of the way people drive on the Sunshine Skyway.
Railings along the Howard Frankland Bridge, for example, are
marked with scrapes and dents. The railings and walls along the
Sunshine Skyway are relatively unscathed.
Because, for the most part, officials say, drivers behave
themselves crossing the Skyway.
"They respect this bridge," says John Nocito, one
of a small group of workers who monitor the goings on at the
And they remember.
Fifteen years ago today, the Summit Venture slammed into the
old Sunshine Skyway and knocked a section of the roadway into
Tampa Bay. Thirty-five people died.
Today, state officials say all is safe and sound with the
new bridge and its expensive protection system, and that more
people are crossing than ever before.
Last year, according to the state Department of Transportation,
an average of 27,000 people crossed the bridge in both directions
That figure is up from a 25,000-per-day average for 1993,
which in turn was up somewhat from 1992. In 1980, when the old
Skyway fell, about 13,000 cars were crossing the bridge every
The DOT says the increasing numbers are the result of population
growth, but also signal the public's acceptance of the new bridge.
Traffic citations and accidents on the bridge are rare, despite
the increasing number of vehicles. "I don't recall anybody
getting a single ticket in the five years I've been watching,"
There are a few, from time to time.
"Not many -- maybe one ticket a month from this office,"
said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Thomas Brazauskas. "Usually
they're for something like an improper lane change. The last
one I wrote was in February -- a boat trailer broke away from
The bridge's history would account for some motorists' mannerly
driving, but there's more to it.
"For some people, it's the height of the bridge, and
for others it's the beauty of the trip," said Brazauskas.
"And cars tend to slow down on the way up, and drivers are
applying brakes on the way down."
John Brandvik, DOT construction engineer, says he believes
drivers behave themselves on the Skyway "as they do on all
major structures that go over water."
"It's not a place where a person would want to break
down, or have an accident, or even get a ticket," he said.
"People would feel very exposed up there, waiting . .
John Nocito has 13 unblinking eyes.
He sees a car slow down and pause at the Skyway's highest
point. Mindful of suicide attempts, he zooms in for a closer
look and turns on a videocassette recorder. The car moves on,
its occupants having just slowed down to admire the view. He
turns the recorder off.
With another "eye," Nocito looks down along the
side of the bridge. Again he zooms in, close enough to see the
fisherman bait his hook or munch a sandwich.
Another eye turns to the west and watches the approach of
a summer storm.
Nocito's 13 "eyes" are the cameras mounted along
the length of the 4.1-mile bridge. Around the clock, the cameras
scan the span for accidents, disabled vehicles, drivers who stop
at the top to gawk, approaching bad weather, and, of course,
potential suicides -- a few every year.
The cameras zoom in and pull back, look this way and that,
giving Nocito and his colleagues a remarkably clear picture of
cars, the weather, nearby boaters. Nocito and colleagues log
about six calls every day, from people reporting problems such
as disabled vehicles, debris on the bridge, high winds, sightseers.
And there still are people who begin the drive over the bridge
. . . and then lose their nerve.
"I'll see 'em pull over and head for a callbox (one of
18 on the bridge)," said Nocito. "We tell them to put
on their flashers and drive slowly to the next call box. Then
they can pick up that phone and talk to us again. We do what
One of the most closely watched clusters of lights on Nocito's
panel is connected to a "continuity circuit" -- a wire
embedded in the bridge concrete. It is designed to sense a heavy
blow from something like a large vessel and transmit the location
of the blow to the control panel.
At that point, Nocito or one of the other watchstanders would
close the bridge and sound warnings. Such excitement, says Nocito,
would not be welcome.
"Frankly, this job can be boring," said Nocito.
"But I'll tell you, the bridge is protected."
Boring maybe, but in recent years, the Sunshine Skyway's celebrity
status has been on the upswing.
Filmmakers and television producers have sought to take advantage
of the bridge's dramatic presence, including one who wanted to
fly a airplane under the main span.
"We had requests for all sorts of things," said
Richard Baier. Baier is currently the city engineer for Clearwater,
but until last November processed such requests for the DOT.
Producers of the television show seaQuest DSV probably
would have been given permission to fly under the span, said
Baier, if they could have demonstrated it could be done safely.
"But they finally decided the liability problems were too
great," he said, and dropped the plan.
The bridge has been used for military rappeling exercises,
said Baier, and early Sunday morning traffic once was held up
for 15 minutes so Honda could photograph a car making the journey
across the bridge.
Usually, said Baier, there is no charge for such uses of the
"It's considered a promotion of Florida, and of this
area," he said. "The Sunshine Skyway has become recognizable
around the country -- around the world, actually.
"It's ironic that such a loss of life gave a start to
something that has brought so much vitality to our community."