ST. PETERSBURG — In Tuskegee, Alabama, two college buddies boarded a bus bound for Florida.
In Tallahassee, a young mother and her baby girl joined the bus route headed south toward Fort Lauderdale.
That same morning, a father told his family goodbye before riding off on his usual peaceful commute across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
All of them were crossing over Tampa Bay during the sudden, violent storm on May 9, 1980, when a freighter ship rocked by rough seas collided with the bridge, knocking out the center of the southbound span.
A Greyhound passenger bus fell off the broken structure and plunged 150 feet along with six cars and a pickup truck.
Only one person survived.
Names of the 35 who died now are memorialized in a granite monument funded by private donations in an effort organized by local author Bill DeYoung, who documented his community’s tragedy in a book.
The bay waters were placid Saturday at a roadside park within sight of the taller bridge that replaced the old Skyway.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Even after 35 years, the families of those who perished remain haunted by that dark day.
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Charles McGarrah’s future wife told him something strange when they met — at a table in the lobby of Florida State University’s DeGraff Hall.
“She said, and I repeat, ‘My name is Wanda Smith and I will not live to see my 25th birthday,’ ” McGarrah said.
His newfound love also vowed never to marry or have children. The pain of her sisters’ divorces was too severe and the world too full of hate to bring a baby into it.
The couple overcame those fears and had a baby girl, Manesha. A few months later, in May, mother and daughter planned to ride from Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale for grandmother’s birthday.
Before this, Wanda had nightmares of falling with people surrounding her.
“I wish you were coming with us,” she told her husband. “Not, ‘I wish you were coming to Fort Lauderdale because of my mother,’ but ‘I wish you were coming with us,’ ” McGarrah said.
It was too late to get a bus ticket.
Later that evening, McGarrah heard buzz on the news about a bus falling off the Skyway Bridge, a familiar spot for the St. Petersburg native, but he didn’t think it could be that one.
When a family member from Fort Lauderdale called to let him know Wanda and Manesha had not arrived, he turned on the television again and saw a Greyhound being pulled from the bay waters.
“I knew in my heart that they were on that bus. No confirmation, but in my heart, I knew,” he said.
Wanda would appear to him in dreams, before her funeral, urging him to read the last poem he wrote for her rather than stay silent.
He remembered her admonition that he should remarry, should something happen to her, but he should never compare her to another.
McGarrah did as she asked, but memories from his young marriage were fresh on his mind Saturday as he read from a poem he wrote shortly after the tragedy.
“How can we see and yet not feel the intensity of our worth in life and know that God is forever by our side strengthening us through each change that life may bring to us?” he said.
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Tammie Pryor King says her father was content raising a family, meticulously grooming his tropical Florida yard – even vacuuming the rocks in the flower beds – and driving to work each day in his Chevy El Camino.
“One morning I remember saying to him, ‘Dad, aren’t you afraid or don’t you tired of going over the Skyway bridge?” King recounted.
“He said, ‘Never.’ He said, ‘It’s the most peaceful time of day for me. I love watching the sun rise as I’m crossing the bay and sometimes, if I work late, I get to watch the sun set.”
When Tammie and her husband heard about the Summit Venture freighter hitting the bridge, they jumped in the car and headed for the site, half expecting to see her father helping to rescue crash victims.
“My heart sunk when I found my dad’s briefcase. I opened it up and he had joke books and a Bible, but I was still hopeful he survived,” she said.
By that night, the rescue had turned to a recovery and she knew.
King told Saturday’s audience, which included many of her father’s 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, not to be afraid of crossing the bridge.
“When you drive over the Skyway bridge, don’t drive over with fear. Look down at the water like I do to the west going south, where he went down, and remember my dad, James Aaron Pryor, and know that he was at peace when his life ended,” King said.
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The rain had been coming down in sheets since they crossed the line from Alabama into Florida, and it continued at a stop in Tallahassee. Lots of students from Tuskegee were on the bus.
Lynwood Armstrong got off the Greyhound in Tampa, leaving his buddy, John Callaway Jr., to make the rest of the trip down to Miami.
He heard about an accident on the bridge and called Callaway’s parents, but they couldn’t get any information.
“A few hours later, I watched them pull that bus out of the water and I knew right then that was the bus I was on,” Armstrong said.
Today, he said, he can still hear Callaway’s mother screaming on the phone.
Armstrong would remain close to his friend’s mother and now late father through the years. He says they nurtured his faith, assuring him that even this tragedy was in God’s hands.
“I can’t wait till that day to see him and his father at the Pearly Gates,” he said.
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Belinda Jackson entered her teenage years without a mother.
Her recollections of the day her mom died aren’t as vivid as thoughts of how she has missed meeting Jackson’s three children and a grandchild.
Jackson’s family wore T-shirts Saturday with a portrait of Sandra Davis.
Davis’ children have struggled for years with depression, anxiety and feelings of anger, but mostly with loneliness.
“I wish I could tell her she’s rich in grandchildren,” Jackson said.
Decades after the loss, though, Jackson says the memorial to her mother and the other victims, the stories of others who also have lost and overcome, finally have given her heartbroken family a measure of closure.
“Words cannot explain. Words cannot explain,” she said.
She thanked DeYoung, the author who helped organize the monument, then Jackson turned back to the audience, many of them sweating in the late-morning sun.
There was hardly a breeze on the bay.
“We don’t know the time, the hour, the minute when it will be the last,” she said.