Friday, May 09, 2008

May 9

On this date in 1980, a freighter -- blown off course in the perilous shipping lane of Tampa Bay -- struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge just after 7:30 a.m. On impact, the Summit Venture, empty and riding high in the water, destroyed nearly 1300 feet of roadway and sent three dozen people plunging into the channel. The captain of the freighter, John Lerro, was attempting to guide his ship through one of the longest and most dangerous shipping channels in the world; his mission was complicated by a sudden and unexpected blast of horrendous weather, which left him as well as everyone on the bridge shrouded in zero-visibility conditions, with rain and fog and winds that approached 60 miles per hour. The ship’s radar failed as well.

A minute before impact, conditions cleared enough for Lerro to see that his ship was off course and heading toward the bridge. Last-second emergency maneuvers were ineffective. Most of the 35 people who died that morning were traveling on a Greyhound bus, which tumbled into the bay and -- in the words of one observer -- “split open like a ripe tomato.” Seven other cars joined the bus in the water. Only one man survived.


Nineteen years later, a Custom Charters bus veered off Highway 610 in Louisiana and crashed into an embankment, killing 22 people who were headed to a Biloxi, Mississippi casino to celebrate Mothers’ Day. The driver of the bus, Frank Bedell, had passed out just before the accident. According to one witness, the bus "closed up like an accordion," ejecting passengers in all directions.

By any measure, Bedell should not have been driving that morning. His employers were evidently unaware that Bedell had been hospitalized 20 times in the previous two years for kidney and heart ailments that eventually took his life three months after the Mothers’ Day catastrophe. Investigators later discovered that Bedell had received dialysis treatement the day before the crash and checked himself out of the hospital against his doctor’s advice; desperate to earn a living, he was given fluids and sent home 10 hours before taking the wheel. It likely didn’t help matters that Bedell was taking Benadryl and had apparently smoked marijuana sometime before taking the wheel.

It was also not insignificant that Custom Charters routinely broke federal law by insisting that its drivers work without the mandatory eight hours of rest between trips. In 1998, federal investigators slapped the company on the wrist after learning that its drivers -- at the insistence of their supervisors -- were submitting falsified logs to conceal their illegally long shifts. Custom was also cited for failing to do criminal background and medical checks on their employees, and for instituting a drug and alcohol screening program that was apparently non-functional. Any of these precautions would have saved nearly two dozen lives.

Frank Bedell died of a heart attack three months after the Mothers' Day catastrophe.