This is the time of year when reporters review the good and the bad events of the year. In Florida, most of our disastrous events have been caused by nature – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and forest fires hit by lightning.
But there are also man-made disasters and terrible events, and Florida had one in 2016 that will impact American society and politics for some time. It was the terrible mass killing at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
June 11, 2016 – Pulse Nightclub Terrorist Attack
On the night of June 11, 2016, Omar Mateen of Port St. Lucie, Florida, entered the crowded and darkened Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando and fired away with an automatic rifle, killing fifty people and hospitalizing 53 others. Mateen had traveled over one hundred miles several times to investigate entertainment places in Orlando, even the Magic Kingdom.
Despite being interviewed three times by the FBI for making inflammatory remarks to fellow workers, and later questioned because his Afghan father Seddique Mateen hosts a YouTube show where he is portrayed as President of Afghanistan and fan of the Taliban. Mateen was able to purchase his weapon after being turned down twice by gun shops mainly because he showed he was employed for seven years in Florida by the largest private security firm in the world, a British company.
I was asked what I thought were “man-made: Florida disasters that would be recalled like this event and unfortunately too many came to mind as a historian.
May 3, 1901 – The Great Fire of 1901
Most Floridians don’t know that other than the Chicago Fire and the San Francisco Earthquake Fire, the greatest urban fire in United States history took place on May 3, 1901, in Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city and the gateway to the state. Workers at the Cleveland Fiber Company on the corner of Davis and Beaver Streets, were at lunch, when a spark from a nearby chimney landed on one of their pile of drying Spanish moss. The city was in a drought and the wind was gusting.
Only San Francisco & Chicago Was Worse
Before the workers could stop the fire, it was spreading from house to house. Since North Florida was a lumbermen’s dream, most homes and stores were wood frame. Within eight hours 146 city blocks and 2,368 buildings were in flames, and people in Savannah, Georgia, were watching the glow from the fire that left 10,000 people homeless and ruined the business community.
January 28, 1986 – the CHALLENGER disaster
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986, was a horrifying event for millions of people who watched the 11:39 EST take-off on television, but thousands of Floridians watched the event live.
I was one of them despite being 130 miles to the west. I was going to my classroom and going up the outer stairwell at the Ybor Campus of HCC when a person called out the “Challenger” name. I turned and looked eastward across a cold but clear sky and saw the spacecraft ascending. Seventy-three seconds into the flight, the white smoke split into what looked like three strange lines. A cleaning woman at the nearest landing turned to me and asked, “Is that normal?” All I could reply was a slow “No.”
May 9, 1980 – The Sunshine Skyway Bridge
The 1971 Sunshine Skyway Bridge crossing Tampa Bay between Saint Petersburg and Bradenton was a Florida landmark and a scenic route for millions of people traveling south along the Gulf of Mexico. At 7:33 a.m. on May 9, 1980, a blinding thunderstorm with high winds convinced some of the bridge staff that the bridge might be temporarily closed. What they did not expect was the cargo ship Summit Venture colliding with a pier on the southbound span, sending 1,200 feet of bridge collapsing into the bay.
Famous Tampa Bay Time photograph
Six cars, one truck, and a Greyhound bus fell 150 feet into the water, killing 35 people. Truck driver Wesley MacIntre incredibly survived when he landed on the deck of the Summit Venture. The bridge was rebuilt with a new series of protective barriers at the piers.
May 11, 1996 – Value Jet DC 9 Miami
At 14:04 Value Jet Flight 592 from Miami International Airport to Atlanta (Hartsfield-Jackson) took off from Runway 8R at 14:04. The 27 year old former Delta plane carried 110 people despite a number of investigations regarding old equipment. Ten minutes into the flight over the Everglades, smoke poured out of the floor of the airplane. The two pilots made three minutes of conversation as they tried to turn back. At 14:13 the airplane crashed into the marshes of the Everglades with no survivors.
January 28, 1980 – The U.S. Coast Guard Blackthorn
It is rare to have two disasters in the same place in the same year, but four months before the Sunshine Skyway was destroyed by a ship, the United States Coast Guard seagoing buoy tender Blackthron (WLB-391), just finishing a major overhaul in Tampa, collided in a fog with the tanker SS Capricorn.
I think I have mentioned enough misery for one article.