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Harbor Pilot Haunted 5 Years After Bridge Disaster

May 8, 1985 GMT

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) _ The pilot of the ship that caused the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster five years ago says he now leads a ″miserable existence,″ teaching students how to dock boats, living in a tiny ship’s cabin and plagued by multiple sclerosis.

Ex-harbor pilot John Lerro was at the peak of a 20-year career when he took the wheel of the Summit Venture on May 9, 1980. He was guiding the 608-foot freighter 40 miles through the narrow, winding shipping channel in Tampa Bay during a sudden, blinding squall when the ship sheared a piling supporting part of the towering bridge. A section of the bridge collapsed into the bay and 35 people were killed.

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Today, while a new span is being built to replace the old one, Lerro is teaching nautical science at a New York maritime college and says he’s frustrated and ″living like an animal″ in cramped quarters aboard a ship because he can’t afford a place of his own.

He says he’s haunted by the nightmare of watching the bridge collapse and seeing vehicles falling 15 stories into the water.

And he’s fighting the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis, a disease that was diagnosed 18 months after the accident and cost him his pilot’s license.

″It’s a miserable existence,″ says Lerro, 42. ″I spent thousands of hours thinking about that day. Thousands of hours. Trying to figure out: Why me? You know what the answer is? Because. Why me? Because. Why the poor souls who died? Because. In other words, no answers.″

Seven vehicles, including a bus with 26 aboard, plummeted 150 feet when a 1,400-foot section of concrete roadway fell into the bay. One man survived after his pickup truck bounced off the ship’s bow.

″It screwed up my profession. It screwed up my significance. It screwed up everything,″ Lerro says.

Before the disaster Lerro had worked his way up through the ranks to ship’s master, taking container ships to Japan, passenger ships to South America, chemical tankers to Europe. He was qualified to guide vessels through the Panama Canal. And as a Tampa Bay harbor pilot he was considered an expert in guiding ocean-going vessels between Tampa and the Gulf of Mexico.

The St. Petersburg Times recently interviewed Lerro at the State University of New York’s Maritime College where he is an adjunct professor teaching 18- year-old students how to dock a boat.

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He lives on the anchored Empire State, a 500-foot former passenger ship that is a teaching tool for the academy, his alma mater.

His cabin is five steps long, two steps wide and is next to a room labeled ″Slop Sink Locker.″

″I think back to my life in Tampa,″ he says. ″It was beautiful. I died and went to heaven. Now I have filth. I touch things and I’m filthy .... If I had life to do over again, I’d be a flute player.″

His piloting job had been a dream: ″This little man is moving that big thing. You’re a very significant person. It was the reason for getting up, the reason to be .... I was so proud of myself as a pilot ... proud of my ability.″

Lerro was held partially to blame for the accident by the National Transportation Safety Board.

″I feel pretty guilty about it,″ he says. ″I don’t feel stupid, but I feel guilty. The weather was bad. I didn’t rise above it. I failed at being a pilot, but I’m teaching these kids good stuff.″

The state of Florida allowed him to keep his pilot’s license. But on Dec. 24, 1981, 11 months after he returned to work, he had to quit because of his progressive nerve illness.

Lerro tried his hand at other work. He sent out resumes by the dozens but polite refusals stacked up until the Maritime Academy hired him in January.

Now, surrounded by cadets waiting to try their turn at docking a boat, he warns:

″If you misjudge, you’ve got hell to pay.″