Skyway Bridge disaster survivor who got off Greyhound bus shares bond on 30th anniversary of Skyway collapse

6:03 PM, May 9, 2010   |    comments
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  • The original Sunshine Skyway Bridge, after the disaster on May 9, 1980.
  • John "Chip" Callaway, Jr., a student at Tuskegee Institute, was one of 35 lives lost in the Skyway Bridge disaster.
  • The Greyhound bus is lifted from Tampa Bay after the Skyway Bridge disaster.
  • The bow of the ship Summit Venture, with part of the roadway from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
  • The roadway of the original Skyway Bridge fell more than 150 feet into the water below.

St. Petersburg, Florida -- Thirty years ago this weekend, one span of the original Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapsed into Tampa Bay. The disaster took away 35 lives, but it also created an amazing bond.

Grace Callaway's son should not have been on that Greyhound bus.

Nineteen-year old John Callaway, Jr. -- his family called him "Chip" -- was coming home to Miami with friends from college in Alabama.

"He usually would take a bus that would come from Jacksonville straight to Miami, but school [was] out, and they had to put on extra buses," his mother Grace explained.

So the bus that ran on May 9, 1980 instead came through Tampa, then crossed the towering Sunshine Skyway Bridge on its way to South Florida.

Rain was pounding -- blinding.

"It was the Friday before Mother's Day," Grace remembered.

Photo Gallery: Pictures of Skyway Bridge Disaster
Audio: Mayday call from ship that hit the bridge

As the Greyhound carrying Chip reached the top of the bridge, far below, the pilot of a massive tanker called the Summit Venture tried to pass under the bridge.

In the driving rain, his ship smashed into one of the Skyway's support pilings.

A quarter-mile of roadway plunged into Tampa Bay. Thirty-five people -- Chip Callaway among them -- died in those waters.

For Grace, the pain is the worst around Mother's Day.

"Every time there's a family gathering, he's missing," she said.

"Every time one of my kids does something that's admirable that I'd want the family to rejoice over, he's missing. That's the part that really matters so much."

But something has helped ease that pain every Mother's Day for 30 years: a phone call.

This year, the call came a few days ahead of schedule. Breaking into a broad smile, Grace Callaway answered her telephone and let out a breathless, "Oh my goodness!" On the other end was John Callaway, Jr.'s best friend, Lynnwood Armstrong.

"We have a bond -- it's -- it's crazy," Armstrong said with a laugh. "I feel like that's something I should do. Hold on to just a little piece of him, you know?"

Armstrong understands Grace Callaway's pain more than anyone possibly can. Because Lynnwood Armstrong was also on that Greyhound bus on May 9, 1980. He got off in Tampa, just minutes before the bus and his best friend drove over the Skyway Bridge.

"When they pulled that bus up out of that water, I knew it then. That's -- that's when I knew it was his bus. And -- man, it was -- wooh," Armstrong said, looking off into the distance and working hard to keep his emotions in check.

"I used to wonder 'why?' sometimes," Armstrong admitted. "But it just wasn't my time. I learned to accept life the way it is. And live life to the fullest. Because every day is not promised."

Lynnwood Armstrong now works -- of all places -- for the Florida Department of Transportation.

He started one year before the new Skyway Bridge opened in 1987. The new bridge is sturdier, in a better location for ships, and surrounded by bumpers called "dolphins" that can protect the pilings from the impact of a ship like the Summitt Venture.

"I've been on the tour a few times," Armstrong said. "[I] go up in the tallest tower. Go up there, and I like to look out. And every time I go, I'll say some things to John."

Lynnwood Armstrong, now 50, still boldly carries the burden of living two lives. One of his own, and one for his best friend, who never should have been on that bus.

A U.S. Coast Guard inquiry was held after the disaster. It found that tanker pilot John Lerro contributed to the crash, but so did several things beyond his control. Lerro was allowed to return to his job as a harbor pilot. His role in the disaster haunted him until he died in 2002.

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