Freighter Pilot
In the 1960s and early 1970s, John Lerro served as a merchant seaman, rising through the ranks to ship's master. He traveled to Japan and South America and Europe. He qualified to guide ships through the Panama Canal. In 1976, he began piloting freighters, tankers and passenger ships from the Gulf of Mexico 58.4 miles up Tampa Bay to the Port of Tampa, one of the longest shipping channels in the world. He made the run up and back nearly 800 times. By 1980, Lerro was earning $40,000 a year. Then came the vote to promote him from deputy to senior status, which came with a six-figure salary. In early May of that year, Mr. Lerro arranged a loan to pay for the hefty initiation fee. He was scheduled to close on the loan May 9, 1980. The promotion never happened. After the accident, John Lerro was called a drunk, a murderer, even a homosexual (possibly because it had become known that he had danced ballet at Carnegie Hall). His life was threatened as was his lawyer's. A state inquiry cleared him of negligence in 1980, and although a Coast Guard inquiry found that his decision to proceed in zero-visibility contributed to the crash, it also said many other factors beyond his control also played a big role. Lerro was no stranger to problems in his career as a Tampa Bay harbor pilot. In his 42-month tenure he had had seven accidents. Less than three months earlier he was piloting a 720-foot freighter toward the bridge when the huge ship failed to respond quickly enough and its stern nudged the Skyway bridge, causing $40,000 of damage. He briefly resumed his career as a harbor pilot but medical tests showed the first symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a disease that hardens tissue in the brain or spinal column, eroding muscle control and impairing thought.
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Personally, his marriage dissolved. He moved to New York for a few years and taught at the Maritime Academy, his alma mater. He lived in a cramped room aboard a ship and thought about suicide. But at perhaps his lowest point, he bounced back. He enrolled at the University of South Florida, earned a master's degree in counseling, remarried, and volunteered at Hillsborough's crisis hotline and at a center for criminals on probation. Eventually, though, his illness caused him to stop work and he spent much of the end of his life bedridden or in a wheelchair, living on a pension and disability payments. Lerro's attorney and friend over the years said "In him I saw desperation, abandonment, hopelessness. He was tormented for the rest of his life by the deaths of those 35 people."
Freighter pilot John Lerro died Aug. 31, 2002. He was 59.