FDLE criticizes FHP decisions before I-75 crashes


Troopers with the Florida Highway Patrol work the scene of a multi-vehicle crash with multiple fatalities on Interstate 75 near the southern end of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in this Jan. 29 file photo.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012 at 8:37 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 26, 2012 at 1:36 p.m.

A string of missteps and a lack of communication by Florida Highway Patrol supervisors occurred on Interstate 75 in the early hours of Jan. 29 when troopers closed and then reopened the interstate moments before a string of deadly wrecks, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded Thursday.

Facts

READ THE REPORT

A complete copy of FDLE's January 2012 Interstate 75 Incident Review is available online.

Excerpt: Conflict in testimony

Findings: Recommendations 7 and 8

FDLE timeline of events

A 38-page report released by FDLE details failures to follow policies, differences of opinion between FHP troopers and command staff and other problems among officials that morning, when smoke and fog reduced visibility to nothing on the interstate over Paynes Prairie.

About 20 vehicles were involved in six separate crashes on both sides of I-75 that killed 11 people and hospitalized 22 others.

No one from FHP has been disciplined for their actions that night. Courtney Heidelberg, a spokeswoman for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which includes the Highway Patrol, said it's too early to consider disciplinary action.

That determination disturbed at least one survivor of the crashes.

"This is taking it so lightly it's ridiculous," Bernie DeWit said. "I don't think there's any seriousness in the way this was handled. I sure did not see there was any responsibility. They don't recommend anything be done, except for down the road."

DeWit, 58, of Grand Rapids, Mich., suffered a broken back in the wrecks, while his wife, Margie, 56, has not yet awakened from the coma she has been in since the accident.

The interstate had been closed for several hours when smoke from a brush fire covered a half-mile length of the interstate at the southern end of Paynes Prairie.

Troopers said they believed visibility had been restored. But at about 4 a.m., the combination of smoke and fog returned as semitrailers and cars barreled onto Paynes Prairie.

FDLE concluded that no member of FHP or any other agency acted with criminal intent when making decisions that day. Rather, they "acted in a manner which they believed was appropriate and in the best interest of restoring the safe and orderly flow of traffic to the roadways."

The report also noted that the FHP official in charge at the scene, Lt. John Gourley, later explained to investigators that he was not aware of any specific FHP policy or procedure dealing with how to open or close a road under those conditions, and that he had not received any formal training on how to do so.

He said FHP policy called for him to restore traffic as soon as he was able. He considered a number of points, including the fact that U.S. 441, a potential detour route, also was closed by the smoke, the report states. The only available detour route, he said, was a two-lane road through a small town, which could pose dangers to drivers unfamiliar with the route.

Gourley told FDLE investigators he decided it was better to reopen I-75 and monitor the visibility.

"Just driving through this we are better than (a) quarter of a mile to half a mile visibility. I can see the lights to the rest area half a mile to a mile and a half away," Gourley is quoted as saying in the report. "This gives us a little reprieve. We need to go ahead and get our road closure assets in place but the fog has lifted somewhat. It's moved a little more to the north from where it was earlier because from Micanopy to here I see nothing to keep this road closed."

The report states that neither the FHP troopers and command staff nor Alachua County sheriff's deputies stayed behind after the interstate was reopened to see if conditions changed.

However, Sheriff Sadie Darnell said Thursday that Sgt. Mike Powers did stay at I-75 for a time after it was reopened and was going to have deputies periodically go there to monitor conditions. She said the crashes started before that could happen.

Meanwhile, Gourley traveled to U.S. 441. Sgt. Bruce Simmons and Trooper James Taylor went on a meal break at Perkins restaurant on Newberry Road. Two other troopers were posted at the nearby northbound rest area, one to write a report and the other to provide security.

Decision-making dissected

On the afternoon of Jan. 28, firefighters responded to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, where a brush fire was burning just east of U.S. 441.

By nighttime, the fire appeared to have gone out, though embers simmered beneath the surface.

An officer with the Florida Forest Service asked an FHP trooper to keep an eye on it through the night.

The trooper said he would pass the message along to those on the next shift, which started at 10 p.m.

"I really appreciate it," the forest service officer said, according to the report. "We don't know what it's gonna do, weather wise, so that thing is pretty close to 441 and 75 and we don't want any major accidents."

"That's a fact," the trooper replied. "OK, sir, we'll take care of it."

At about 11:30 p.m., a crash was reported on 441. A similar crash on I-75 was reported 15 minutes later. Both involved heavy smoke.

At 12:21 a.m., Trooper Simmons authorized the closure of I-75. Southbound traffic was stopped north of the prairie at Exit 382, while northbound lanes were closed at Exit 374, south of the prairie.

At 12:34 a.m., he contacted the Florida Department of Transportation and asked for help in closing the highways: manpower, cones and message boards.

DOT personnel didn't arrive until 2:57 a.m., well after the 60-minute window the agency has to respond to a crash report after normal working hours, per state policy.

FHP's Lt. Gourley, who was off duty, was notified and responded to I-75 at 1:45 a.m. to begin evaluating the situation.

Between 2:30 and 3:18 a.m., Gourley, Simmons and another trooper continued to monitor the visibility along the highway. As the smoke and fog began to clear, Gourley said he intended to reopen the highway.

In a radio transmission at 2:55 a.m., Simmons acknowledged to Gourley that visibility had improved, but he said he felt the smoke might return and that the highway would have to be closed again.

Gourley said he would keep the responders on the scene in case conditions worsened again.

At 3:24 a.m., Simmons met with Gourley and reiterated his concern that the smoke and fog would return, but Gourley held to his decision to reopen the interstate.

Two minutes later, Gourley told troopers to reopen the highway.

At 3:40 a.m., another trooper reported dense smoke and fog with almost zero visibility on U.S. 441. Gourley left the interstate to go to 441 and didn't assign anyone to keep watch on I-75.

An FDOT highway maintenance specialist, Alan Martin, drove the highway after it was reopened and observed only a 50-yard patch of smoke driving south on the prairie at about 3:50 a.m.

By 4 a.m., Martin had turned around and was driving north onto the prairie when he "encountered ‘solid smoke and fog,' " the report said. "Martin veered completely off the roadway and heard accidents occurring behind him."

However, the report said, he didn't communicate with law enforcement to share his observations.

By then, the first reports began to come in about crashes on I-75. Minutes later, a trooper said the highway had zero visibility.

At 4:09 a.m., Gourley ordered the highway closed in both directions.

Conflicting accounts

The report contained excerpts of interviews with many of the FHP troopers and others who responded to the crashes. One of the most dramatic elements is contained in a finding called "conflict in testimony."

Simmons told investigators he expressed concerns to Gourley about reopening the highway based on a fear that conditions could change.

After the crashes, at 4:13 a.m., Simmons made several comments to himself and others about this disagreement that were recorded by his car's video camera.

At 4:27 a.m., Simmons told an Alachua County deputy: "You can't get to it. No, you don't want to get to it. They are having explosions. We've got a trooper down there and now he's having problems breathing. I tried to tell them to leave that ‘Sum … buck' closed and they wouldn't listen to me. I said it's going to roll in again. Leave it closed. Oh lord, no we don't want to mess up. Well, I said, I told while I was grabbing some breakfast, I told the trooper I said 30-45 minutes, you watch. Pissed me off."

At 4:32 a.m., he said to himself: "This would not have happened.''

A minute later, he told a deputy: "They wouldn't freaking listen earlier. That's what I told my lieutenant. That's what I told my lieutenant. I said that it will roll in faster than you can shut it down. This crap wouldn't have happened if he'd have listened.''

At 4:37 a.m., he said to himself, "You're covering your ass," though it wasn't clear to whom he was referring.

But FHP District Commander Capt. Coby Fincher filed a report to Troop Commander Maj. Gene Spaulding saying that Simmons met with him on Jan. 31 and retracted his comments about Gourley.

"In his report, and in a sworn interview, Fincher advised that Simmons told him about the video recording, and that his comments on the video were untrue regarding his disagreement with Gourley's decision to reopen the interstate," the FDLE report said.

However, in a sworn interview, Simmons said the meeting's only purpose was to inform Fincher of the recorded comments. Simmons said his comments on the video were accurate and appropriate.

"Upon review of Fincher's briefing report, Simmons advised that Fincher's recollection of their meeting was inaccurate and the facts stated in the briefing report were not true," the FDLE report stated.

During his interview with FDLE, Taylor, the trooper who went on the meal break with Simmons, said he felt had Gourley not been there, Simmons would have kept the interstate closed.

Key recommendations

In addition to its findings that FHP did not properly monitor conditions and that troopers and local law enforcement officers did not assume specific assignments or posts, FDLE offered recommendations on how the agency can improve its response in the future.

The three key recommendations were:

FHP "guidelines" for traffic control should be cemented as "policies" that "should mandate interaction between FHP command personnel and other governmental technical experts whose subject matter expertise may help FHP make accurate, informed decisions regarding the closing and opening of roads."

"Florida's public roadway signage should be evaluated for its ability to appropriately warn travelers of conditions which may impact visibility on the roadways. Certain low-lying areas of the state, such as Paynes Prairie, are frequently subject to environmental conditions that may cause limitations in visibility."

FHP should open an internal inquiry into the discrepancy in testimony between Simmons and Fincher.

FHP has policies and protocols that include checklists on major road closures and smoke/fog incidents.

The checklists include notification to supervisors and local law enforcement agencies, the creation of detour routes, staffing and obtaining spot weather forecasts.

Steve Letro, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, said the agency did not receive any calls or emails from FHP the night of the accidents.

Letro said on Thursday that the weather service would welcome more calls from FHP.

"We can certainly use the information from them, and we believe we can be of use to them when they are trying to make these decisions," Letro said. "We would never try to make the decision for them, but we would give them our best estimate of what conditions are going to be in a specific area."

The report also describes the low-lying geography of Paynes Prairie and how it leads to frequent problems with visibility. It also notes the lack of signs along the highway and recommends that fixed, electronic signs be installed. Funds for such signs were approved in the recent legislative session.

The report notes an agreement between FHP and FDOT, called the Open Roads Policy, that calls for opening roadways after a traffic crash "in an urgent manner" for the safety of responders to the incident as well as motorists. The policy, however, does not address reopening roads that have been closed because of low visibility or because of crashes that have occurred because of hazards that could resurface, such as environmental conditions.

Further, the report noted that there is a Highway Safety Smoke Management Task Force comprised of several agencies. That task force has not met since the agreement that created it was initiated in 2009.

FHP already making changes

Heidelberg, the spokeswoman for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said Thursday the agency received FDLE's report late Wednesday and still was reviewing it but that FHP already had made two changes in response to its own incident review.

The agency will implement annual training in road closures in the event of low visibility for all troopers and command staff, she said.

Also, she said, the agency is updating its shift commander policy to make it more clear who is in charge of a situation.

In the report, FDLE criticized FHP's definition of its shift commander protocol because it "lacks clarity" as to where responsibility lies in following guidelines.

Heidelberg said there could be more changes based on the FDLE review.

"There is a lot of information in there, a lot of recommendations," she said, "so we'll probably be making some additional changes."

Perry disappointed

State Rep. Keith Perry, who stopped by the Paynes Prairie fire on U.S. 441 on the afternoon of Jan. 28, woke up the next day to find out about the disaster.

In February, Perry, a first-term Republican from Gainesville, made a pitch for funding to pay for electronic signs on both sides of the prairie that could warn drivers of what could be ahead, since the prairie is predisposed to dangerous conditions such as fire and fog.

After skimming the FDLE report on Thursday, Perry said he was disappointed in the preparation and response, particularly the fact that the smoke management task force had never met.

He said he would seek legislation or some other means to have it meet each year.

"If we don't set a date, things like this will never be addressed until there's another tragedy," Perry said.

He said he also wanted to explore streamlining the communications system for state agencies.

Part of the criticism in the report is that the Florida Fire Service notified FHP of the Paynes Prairie fire and asked that troopers monitor the situation throughout the night. However, FHP's computer listing didn't include that instruction, and since the midnight shift saw that the fire appeared to be out, FHP canceled that call.

Later, when reports of crashes because of smoke came in at about midnight, troopers didn't know where the smoke was coming from. One trooper assumed it was from a fire in Putnam County.

Perry also expressed concern when told that the report said Simmons and Taylor were taking a meal break instead of monitoring the highway.

"A meal is, to me, not an acceptable reason to leave the site with the condition so volatile," he said. "That's really tough to explain to families that lost people, that we didn't really do everything possible."

Staff writer Anne Geggis contributed to this report.

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