Fort De Soto Park, Fort DeSoto, Michael Betz, Mullet Key Quarantine Station, Robert Raiola, Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapse
Situated off the coast of Pinellas County, Florida sits the 1,136-acre Fort De Soto Park. The park has a complicated history—a history that is ripe for haunted stories. Tripping on Legends’ Christopher Balzano joined me on The Haunted Librarian Show to discuss some of the tragic stories. Curious about them, I decided to do a bit more researching. Two time periods stand out: The Mullet Key Quarantine Station and the 1980 Sunshine Skyway Bridge Collapse.
Five islands comprise the Fort De Soto Park. Visitors can access the park via boat or car. Inhabitants date back to 1,000 A.D. when the Tocobaga Native American Indians controlled the keys, as well as the Tampa Bay area, residing in villages. One hundred years after the Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez and his men arrived in 1528, the tribe were extinct. By 1861, the islands came under government control and private use was prohibited. During the Civil War, the Union Army controlled two of the islands, Mullet and Egmont Keys. Various buildings were built over the years but ultimately were abandoned one-by-one by 1937. On May 11, 1963, the park was dedicated.
Tierra Verde, the official address for the fort, was originally part of Hillsborough County. Hillsborough County (Tampa and surrounding towns) was founded in 1834 and encompassed the western towns along the Gulf of America. Tierra Verde sits within Pinellas County, which was annexed from Hillsborough in 1912. Researchers should note the dates and keep in mind when searching for data on Fort De Soto Park.
The Tampa Bay area experienced several Yellow Fever outbreaks. From December 16, 1889-1937, the Mullet Key Quarantine Station served as a short-term isolation center for travelers coming to Florida. The quarantine area housed 15 buildings. One was built above the water. The hospital sat 700 feet from the shoreline. Erected on pilings (wooden beams stuck upright into the water), the 37 by 200-foot station consisted of 9 hospital rooms. People who did not exhibit symptoms were housed inland, while patients remained in the hospital. However, people did die at the station.
By 1892, a fumigation apparatus was in use to eradicate the mosquitos, which transmitted Yellow Fever and the cases began to subside. In late 1937, Hillsborough County relocated the station to Gadsden Pointe, closer to Tampa, thus ending one quarantine chapter for the Tampa Bay area. Balzano’s new book Haunted Florida Love Stories (2020) retells some of the ghost stories, possibly identifying who the spirits may be.
On May 9, 1980, the MV Summit Venture crashed into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, causing a 1200-foot span on the southbound lane to fall into the channel, killing 35 people. A makeshift morgue was set up on Mullet Key.
Michael Betz and Robert Raiola, two FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) divers, were already planning on being at the bridge that day. This was Betz’ fifth day on the job; Raiola was training him. Both were eating breakfast at The Bunny Hut when the call came in. Upon arrival, the FDOT divers worked with Eckerd College’s Search and Rescue divers to retrieve bodies from the water. Betz and Raiola made two dives down to the upside-down Greyhound bus, where all aboard died (22 passengers and the driver), when another storm started moving in. Betz and Raiola were unable to retrieve all of the bodies trapped in the bus. Only 18 bodies were recovered on that day. Seven were recovered the next day by other divers.
Bodies were ferried to Andrew Potter Pier (also known as Potter’s Pier), on the southwest corner of Mullet Key. Here they were processed until being transferred to the Coroner’s office in Largo. Visitors to the park speculate that some of the ghosts seen may be those drowned in this horrific accident.
In addition to the possible victims of the bridge collapse, visitors claim to see phantom suicide jumpers.
Tune in with Christopher Balzano, check out his social links (https://trippingonlegends.com/), and consider ordering his latest book.
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