Videos further convey the drama, tragedy on I-75
Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 8:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 8:09 p.m.
As Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Bruce Simmons drove up to the flashing red lights at 4:21 a.m. on Jan. 29, he vented alone in his patrol car.
Earlier in the morning, Simmons said out loud, he had warned his boss about this.
Interstate 75 over Paynes Prairie had been closed for about three hours earlier that morning, but FHP Lt. John Gourley ordered it reopened at 3:26 a.m. when smoke from a nearby wildfire had blown away.
The haze returned, however, and less than an hour later, Simmons approached a fiery scene on I-75 that took 11 lives.
These and other details of the I-75 tragedy emerged Tuesday as FHP released on-dash video from patrol cars that worked the series of accidents.
Before the crashes, the videos show, troopers had navigated the smoke by crawling along I-75. Upon word of the accidents, troopers in clear spots raced at up to 109 mph to get to I-75, but it was too late.
At one point, Simmons told another trooper that there were explosions occurring on the interstate, where some 20 vehicles were involved in six separate crashes.
In the southbound lanes, a pickup truck landed on top of a car that had crashed into the rear of a semitrailer, sparking a fire that engulfed all three.
At 4:27, a trooper told him on the radio: "We're being advised there's ammunition in a vehicle that's exploding. Three cars and a semi. I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to stay out here. I'm starting to have respiratory problems."
Then, someone asked Simmons if they could get to the scene.
"You can't get to it," Simmons replied.
"You don't want to get to it. They're having explosions. We've got a trooper down there, and now he's having problems breathing. I tried to tell them to leave that son of a buck closed, and they wouldn't listen to me," he said, his voice getting louder. "I said, ‘It's going to roll in again. Leave it closed.' ‘Oh, Lord, no, we're gonna open this up.' I was grabbing some breakfast, and I told the trooper, I said, ‘Thirty, 45 minutes, you watch.'"
At 4:32, sitting in his car alone, Simmons said to himself: "This would not have happened."
Then, another officer arrived. "They wouldn't freaking listen earlier," he told him.
Survivors of the early-morning carnage reported hitting a wall of smoke so thick they couldn't see a few feet in front of them.
Video footage released on Monday night by FHP showed much the same thing: troopers driving through heavy smoke and discussing the conditions, sometimes frantically.
FDLE's 38-page report released Thursday detailed failures to follow policies, differences of opinion among FHP troopers and command staff, and other problems that morning as FHP closed and then reopened the highway.
The report cited a string of missteps and a lack of communication by FHP supervisors. No one from the agency has been disciplined for their actions that day.
The videos, which The Sun received after an open-records request, were part of FDLE's investigation and gave insight into what troopers could — and couldn't — see that morning.