Florida Gov. Bob Graham today called on state officials to expand and speed up an investigation of the Tampa Bay Pilot's Association, one day after a freighter rammed a bridge over Tampa Bay, killing at least 26 people.
Authorities reported today that the pilot of the 608-foot freighter, John Lerro, was in command of another ship that struck the bridge in February.
Graham, after viewing the wrecked Sunshine Skyway from a helicopter, said officials began investigating the pilots after the collision in January of a Coast Guard cutter and an oil tanker that killed 23 Coast Guardsmen.
The governor asked the state Department of Professional Regulation "to expand and expedite" their investigation of the pilots who guide ships in and out of Tampa, the nation's seventh largest port.
A spokesman said the Hillsboro County Sheriff's Department is investigating Lerro and the captain of the freighter in Friday's crash, the Summit Venture, for possible charges of criminal negligence.
Friday's disaster left a gaping hole of more than 1,200 feet in the southbound span of the Skyway, the main route from St. Petersburg to the lower Florida Gulf Coast. Still intact is a companion span that carried the bridge's northbound traffic.
As state road crews worked today to open the bridge for two-way traffic, Graham estimated that it will take at least 18 months and $20 million to rebuild the wrecked span. He said he hoped insurance would help pay for the repairs.
Officials predicted that it will take anywhere from five to 10 days for a salvage company to clear debris from the channel so ship traffic can be reopened into Tampa's port.
Local authorities revised downward their initial estimated death toll of 32 after divers searched underneath the wrecked bridge. Eighteen bodies had been recovered by late today and authorities said they expected to find at least eight more.
All the dead were from vehicles that fell about 140 feet into the water when the bridge was struck during a blinding squall. No one aboard the freighter was injured.
The only known survivor of the collapse, 56-year-old Wesley MacIntire, was in good condition at a St. Petersburg hospital.
By day's end, divers said they had spotted only four vehicles under water -- a Greyhound bus that carried at least 23 people, a pickup truck and two cars. Previously, authorities believed at least five vehicles had fallen. t
Coast Guard officials said today that the Summit Venture's pilot, Lerro, was piloting the Jonna Dan, a 720-foot Liberian bulk carrier, in February when it hit an abutment on the Skyway. That accident caused $40,000 in damages.
Lerro could not be reached for comment today. Spokesmen for the pilots' association declined to comment on the accident.