At 7:33 a.m. on May 9, 1980, the freighter Summit Venture, with a harbor pilot guiding it, was entering Tampa Bay approaching the Sunshine Skyway Bridge when the total reliance on luck proved, yet again, to be a bad bet.

The original Sunshine Skyway Bridge and the Francis Scott Key Bridge were in similarly vulnerable locations, spanning shipping channels at the mouths of busy harbors with only a single entrance, and of similar construction: steel truss bridges supported by piers. The support piers of both bridges immediately adjacent to the ship channels were not protected in any meaningful way given the size of the vessels using the channel, nor were any other significant measures taken to help offset that known vulnerability. But this was not a design flaw per se. It was a choice.

Unlike the containership Dali in Baltimore, the Summit Venture suffered no loss of steering or propulsion, or any other equipment failure. Heavy thunderstorms with squalls moved through as the ship arrived at the bridge. The resulting loss of visibility and strong winds proved disastrous, and the ship struck a support pier, collapsing the southbound span and killing 35 people.

The primary reason for failing to adequately protect critical infrastructure from even easily foreseeable events like a ship-strike comes down to money and human nature. The Tampa Bay area made a bad bet and let it ride for 26 years until luck ran out. Baltimore made a bad bet and let it ride for 47 years despite receiving a loud-and-clear warning of what can happen less than three years after the Key Bridge opened. That warning went unheeded.

The question that should always be asked is “Can we afford to lose it?” Assume for the failure and honestly assess the costs of losing a given bridge, tunnel, viaduct, shipping channel, rail corridor, etc. — and then protect it accordingly.

For those who wish to learn from history, I highly recommend “Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down” by Bill DeYoung.

Joel Milton works on towing vessels. He can be reached at [email protected].