A Friday morning in May 2009
The heavy fog moved toward him like fists pushing against the win¬dow. Using a frayed handkerchief, the solitary man reached up to wipe a mist-covered spot. Large, heavily muscled, he was an impos¬ing figure accustomed to giving orders, commanding men and ships at will. But as he leaned forward, squinting jet-black eyes to peer out into the gloom of that dawn, he was aware that there would be no submission from the fickle weather, no acquiescence to his hope for an easier route ahead. The toothpick he absentmindedly chewed switched from one side of his bushy-mustached mouth to the other. And then he slumped backward in frustration, sighing heavily. Captain Ray Luis was a great believer in signs and omens. In his estimation, this beastly morning was a harbinger of nothing good.
Though inside the pilothouse and out of the wretched weather, Captain Luis felt the dampness envelop him like a soggy blanket. Usually the view out the window toward the waves filled him with a sense of pride; holding the well-worn, smooth wheel of the ship in his calloused hands could still produce a thrill. But on that particular morning, none of the familiar pleasures would lift his spirits. In good weather, he would trust no other crew member to be at the helm for the formidable journey up the Tampa Bay channel; in this weather, the responsibility of the job weighed on him—and him alone—even more.
Intently peering through the fogged windows, Luis tried to esti¬mate the visibility ahead, shaking his head at his infernal bad luck. Reaching up to rub tired eyes and then scratch his chin, he felt the stubble of a three-day growth of beard. He’d taken all the necessary precautions before heading up the bay. Even so he reminded himself that his freighter, the Wilder Wanderer, was now without cargo and therefore significantly lighter; as a result, she would ride higher in the water, more at the mercy of wind and waves.
The bridge that worried him just ahead was the over five-mile¬long Sunshine Skyway, a marvel of engineering—and beauty—that spanned the bay from St. Petersburg to Bradenton. The golden cables, designed to gently arch upward, proclaimed the elegance of her design, beckoning all who passed over or beneath to savor the symmetry. But wise captains weren’t naive to her siren’s song; they knew her spell was merely a facade, and a dangerous one at that. Beneath the beauty lay treachery for the unwary.
The stark reality was this: Every ship’s captain faced a critical test of his skills by maneuvering through the passage, which measured 864 feet wide and 150 feet tall. On each side of the channel stood bridge piers made of steel and concrete; these structures supported the roadway above, providing a safe journey for people in the cars, trucks, and buses that crossed the bridge, going about their daily lives. All of them traveled blind to any potential emergency or dan¬ger from below. Unknowingly, they placed their trust not only in the worthiness of the superstructure itself, but also in the hands of every pilot who steered his ship under the bridge. Today their lives rested in the hands of Captain Luis.
Clutching the wheel of the Wild One—as he affectionately called the ship—Luis continued his search for the all-important buoys that marked the safe channel under the bridge. Any divergence from that channel was extremely dangerous; no captain wanted to entertain the possibility of that disaster. He felt his ship’s over two-hundred-foot¬long hull begin to pull slightly against his steering. He tensed his jaw in concentration and nudged the wheel more to the left.
When the thunder roared into the darkness, it caught Captain Luis off guard; his head jerked backward in unexpected alarm. The flash of lightning that immediately followed announced the storm was directly overhead. He cursed and then braced himself for the next assault that he feared was inevitable: a gust of fierce wind. It came just as he’d expected, forcing the ship directly into the path of the bridge’s supports.
Grabbing the intercom mike, he shouted for his man in charge at the bow of the ship. “Jaurez! How bad is it up there?”
The garbled voice of Jaurez answered almost immediately. “Captain, they ain’t no seeing in this!” Another crack of thunder with its accompanying lightning struck, and Jaurez mumbled under his breath. “Cursed channel! I swear it’s haunted! Couldn’t see a blessed thing before, and now it’s even worse. Want us t’ drop anchor and sit her out?” Jaurez and four other men were huddled beneath heavy slickers.
“No! Can’t take the chance of being pushed into those piers.” All the captain’s past experience came into play, and he made a quick decision.
“I’m cutting her speed to five miles per hour. Gives us a chance to see where we’re heading in this muck. And let me know soon’s you spot those buoys!”
Suddenly the winds increased again, approaching tropical-storm speeds of seventy miles per hour. The Wild One groaned and creaked in response. Feeling the first rise of panic, Luis glanced over at his radar just in time to see it blink out. For a few moments, he simply stared at the blank screen, uncomprehending. Just as he reached over to give it a useless rap, he heard Jaurez’s shout over the intercom: “Captain! There’s a buoy; we’re passing it port side! We’re headin’ right down the middle of the channel!”
Luis kept his voice calm and radioed back, “Set tight, Jaurez. I’m thinkin’ you’re right. We’ll take it easy … steer on through. But keep a close watch, you hear?”
“Yes, sir! I’ll be mighty glad when …”
But Juarez’s voice was lost in another reverberating thunderclap. Lightning followed, illuminating the seductive lines of the Skyway. That quick revelation also showed Captain Luis that the perspectives were off. This isn’t right! Luis gasped, opening his eyes and mouth wide in sudden shock. We’re not in the channel, not at all! In that hor¬rific instant, Luis realized that the buoy they just passed must’ve been the one marking the right side of the channel. He froze as the realiza¬tion shot like a knife through his gut: The Wild One was headed right toward one of the bridge’s supports.
Grabbing the intercom with shaking hands, Luis shouted, “Jaurez! Hard to port! Let go the anchor! Ram the engines, full astern!” In a frantic effort to prevent the catastrophe, he attempted to stop the giant ship before she hit the bridge. But another show of lightning proved the futility of his efforts. The concrete pier loomed over the Wild One.
There was no stopping the inevitable. They were going to ram it.
“Cap’n!” was all he heard from Jaurez before the ship’s bow and the concrete of the bridge met in a rage of violence. The first loud boom! was immediately followed by the howling of grinding steel, and the great ship groaned, as though she were personally injured. Splintering, wrenched roadway released overhead, and great blocks of concrete and warped, twisted steel plunged into the water and onto the deck of the ship.
The collision had thrown Captain Luis nearly off his feet, though he grabbed the wheel at the last moment to brace himself. He took one brief moment to pray, God, oh please!—may the road overhead be clear! Gathering courage to face whatever awaited, he ran out to the bow of his doomed ship.
On the road above, no one suspected that a dire rending had just occurred. If any felt the slight movement of the roadway, they assumed that strong winds were the culprit. The drivers merely adjusted for the pull, intending to continue on safely.
On the deck of his fated ship, Captain Luis froze at the desolation unfolding before him. He watched in terror as huge pieces of roadway dropped into the violently churning waves of black, murky water. But he and every member of the crew recoiled in horror when, all eyes compelled to follow the surreal scene before them, they watched a bus, a Mercedes, and a van launch out into a void of nothingness.
And plunge into the depths of the Tampa Bay.