Deadly I-75 crashes show lessons not learned from 2008 incident
Published: Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 7:42 p.m.
As he drove into a wall of smoke and fog in the hours before dawn, the driver slowed his tractor-trailer to a crawl. Moments later, visibility vanished and cars crashed into the big rig, their drivers blinded by the cloud enveloping the interstate.
Deaths on I-75 and I-4
The following people were killed in a series of crashes on Interstate 4 in Polk County on Jan. 9, 2008, when smoke and fog shrouded the highway in the early morning hours:
Joseph Noel, 57, Lakeland
Jorge Fundora, 51, Tampa
Darren Snyder, 35, Lakeland
Michael Fricke, 34, Tampa
Adrian Moran-Gomez, 21, Lakeland
In addition, 37 people were injured in the crashes.
The following people were killed in a series of crashes on Interstate 75 in Alachua County on Jan. 29, 2012, when smoke and fog shrouded the highway in the early morning hours:
Lori Lynne Brock-Hughes, 46, Pensacola
Adrianna Carmo, 39, Marietta, Ga.
Edson Carmo, 38, Marietta, Ga.
Jose Carmo Jr., 43, Marietta, Ga.
Leticia Carmo, 17, Marietta, Ga.
Roselia DeSilva, 41, Marietta, Ga.
Michael Hughes, 39, Pensacola
Sabryna Hughes Gilley, 17, Pensacola
Christie Diana Nguyen, 27, Gainesville
Jason Lee Raikes, 26, Richmond, Va.
Vontavia Kiara Robinson, 22, Williston
In addition, 22 people were injured in the crashes.
The ensuing pile-up involved dozens of vehicles and multiple deaths.
The description could be used for the Jan. 29 catastrophe on Interstate 75 at Paynes Prairie, which claimed 11 lives and is believed to be the deadliest traffic incident in Florida history.
But it actually was describing a near-identical series of predawn crashes on Jan. 9, 2008, on smoke- and fog-shrouded Interstate 4 in Polk County that left five people dead, 37 injured and more than 70 vehicles wrecked.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in its April review of the I-75 crashes, identified a number of steps that were supposed to have been taken by the Florida Highway Patrol after the 2008 crashes, actions that might have helped prevent the bloody January replay on I-75.
The FDLE's review of the 2012 crashes, which drew extensively from the 2008 accidents, contained numerous specific recommendations for improvements.
Now, six months after the Paynes Prairie crashes and three months after the FDLE report was released, a Sun investigation could find no evidence that any of the recommended changes have taken place. And no one at FHP has been held accountable or disciplined for their actions in 2008 or 2012.
As The Sun mined the extensive FDLE report, certain key points emerged:
Widespread training was supposed to take place starting in 2008 involving a weather index used to predict the possibility of fog
and smoke on roadways, but the training faltered after one round. No further training was conducted after 2008 until Feb. 2, 2012 — four days after the I-75 accidents.
The FHP lieutenant who reopened I-75 was one of the few at FHP who was trained, records show. He later told investigators he never had received the training.
That same officer didn't talk with the forest service or weather service before reopening the highway, as an FHP policy developed after the 2008 crashes directed.
Officials also were supposed to be guided by a multi-agency agreement on smoke and highways, but key players involved in the I-75 crashes were unfamiliar with it.
A task force created after 2008 under the agreement to deal with smoke and fog issues didn't meet for the first time until months after the I-75 crashes. The FHP did not have a member named to the panel.
FHP policies on traffic are vague and ignored in the field, the FDLE found. Also, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles does not have a policy directing troopers on how to reopen a roadway.
The problem goes beyond Florida; none of the 13 states and the federal agencies that the FDLE surveyed had procedures on road closures when smoke and fog limit visibility.
Officials from the FHP declined to respond to specific questions for this story. Courtney Heidelberg, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which oversees the agency, said the FHP is preparing a report that will address each of the FDLE recommendations.
The agency is "finalizing a couple of documents that we will be releasing soon," she said.
Officials previously said the changes might include clear policies on the chain of authority during major incidents, as well as annual training in road closures for troopers.
Heidelberg said she couldn't speak on specifics, but that "the agency is designing the training. We anticipate it will be ready within the next few months."
Three months ago, she told The Sun it was too early to consider disciplinary action. She said last week that nothing had changed on that issue.
Heidelberg declined to get into specifics about FHP's response to FDLE's review. "The FHP will address your questions in the report," she said.
In the absence of the FHP commenting on its response to the crashes, some officials have suggested that inadequate staffing might have hampered the agency. But others and the FDLE investigation say little of consequence was done after the 2008 crashes, raising questions of whether the same will happen this time.
"FHP failed to adequately create and implement effective guidelines for troopers to follow when dealing with events related to limited visibility on public roadways. The specific changes to FHP's policies and procedures were limited, and subsequent training provided to command personnel was ineffective," according to the report.
The FDLE is not alone in raising concerns about whether the recommendations would be implemented by the FHP.
"If (the recommendations) had been implemented in 2008, we might not have been in this position,'' Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said last week.
Fire info ditched from system
A 62-acre brush fire started burning on Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park on the afternoon of Jan. 28. FHP and Florida Forest Service officers talked about the fire, which was causing visibility problems on U.S. 441, and officials arranged for signs there and on I-75 to alert motorists.
Forest Service Duty Officer David McCarty notified an FHP supervisor at 8:20 p.m. that there was no smoke coming from the fire at the time. But he said the FHP should continue patrolling because there likely would be smoke during the night and the road might need to be closed.
"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," he said, according to the FDLE investigation.
The supervisor assured him that the information would be given to the midnight shift when it started at 10 p.m. But less than a half-hour later, an FHP sergeant passing the scene radioed in that the fire was out, and the incident was closed in the agency's computer dispatch system in Jacksonville.
It proved to be a dangerous mistake.
None of the midnight shift duty officers remember being briefed about the fire, and there is no documentation of any briefing. The FDLE report recommends that FHP should keep a list of daily fire reports independent of its dispatch system.
When a six-vehicle crash happened on 441 around 11:30 p.m., it initially wasn't attributed to the Paynes Prairie fire. The same thing happened when reports of smoke came from I-75, which FHP first attributed to a fire in Putnam County. After crashes started on the interstate, it was closed at 12:10 a.m.
It took until nearly 1 a.m. before FHP Sgt. Bruce Simmons correctly blamed the smoke on "a fire on Paynes Prairie that nobody said anything about," the FDLE investigation found.
FHP Lt. John Gourley reopened I-75 at 3:26 a.m. Simmons later said that he recommended against reopening the road and was captured in an in-car video yelling to a deputy that he had advised keeping the road closed and "they wouldn't listen to me."
Within 35 minutes of the interstate opening, there were multiple reports of accidents. A survivor described the scene as being like "the end of the world," with sounds of crashes and explosions being heard but not seen as smoke blocked visibility.
Tractor-trailers stopped completely and were rear-ended by cars. There would be 25 vehicles involved in crashes, killing 11 and hospitalizing more than 20 others.
Gourley closed the interstate again at 4:09 a.m.
Failure to contact weather service
Gourley told FDLE he reopened I-75 because he was concerned about detouring traffic to a two-lane roadway and about motorists slowing down and not expecting the closure.
Although he conceded that he's "not a weather guy," he said the highway had clear visibility for more than 20 minutes before he ordered the interstate reopened. Wind was pushing "everything out of the way from the road," he said.
FHP policy requires the shift commander to notify the Florida Forest Service of incidents involving fire and smoke and get a spot check of conditions from the National Weather Service on conditions. Gourley did neither.
He told investigators he didn't believe anyone from the forest service was on duty at the time and told The Sun that the weather service wouldn't have been able to help. The weather service in the past wasn't able to offer information for such a small area, he said, and he didn't think it would be any different this time.
"It was too isolated, too small, too far away from their forecasting stations," he said.
Steve Letro, meteorologist in charge of the NWS's Jacksonville office, said he welcomes calls from FHP. The office wasn't informed about the Paynes Prairie fire, Letro said, but if it had been, it would have given its best estimate about the likelihood of continued reductions to visibility, how bad they might be, their duration and their extent.
"We let them know we are always happy to hear from them," Letro said. "We can't provide weather support for something we don't know is going on. So anything we can do to enhance that process would be great."
He said he talked with FHP after the crashes about improving communications but hadn't heard back as of last week. Communication between the agencies has not improved since the accidents, he said, but he's hopeful that change is coming.
"I'm choosing to take the optimistic way to look at this, and I'm just assuming that it takes them awhile to work this all through their system," Letro said.
FHP spokeswoman Capt. Nancy Rasmussen said the agency is evaluating procedures and "reaching out to other agencies" such as the forest service to see how they operate.
Lack of a policy on road closures
FHP lacks a distinct policy on closing and opening roads and how to respond to issues involving a combination of smoke and fog on roads. Instead, it covers these issues in a policy involving the shift commander in such situations, including checklists of the steps to be taken.
But FDLE found the policy lacks clarity in its definition of shift commander, leading to confusion in FHP command personnel about where responsibility lies in such situations.
Capt. Coby Fincher, FHP's Gainesville district commander, told investigators "anybody can open a roadway" in the agency and that nothing dictates when a road should be shut. It's "interpretable" whether there needs to be adherence to the checklists, which he said were designed as a guide rather than a strict requirement.
Maj. Gene Spaulding, who's in charge of the FHP troop that covers Alachua County, said responsibility is "unclear in the policy" and that checklists are not "ironclad mandatory." Both Gourley and Simmons said they thought the checklists were merely suggestions.
Lt. Maritza Gonzalez, who oversees the administrative functions of FHP's Jacksonville communications center, said, "What (the policy) says is not what's happening" on the ground.
FDLE recommended that Florida Highway Patrol policies related to traffic control be clearly documented under one section and be mandatory during incidents affecting traffic and safety.
The change is among eight specific findings and recommended fixes in the FDLE report. But just as in 2008, there is no mechanism to ensure that the improvements will be made.
Rasmussen said that based on the report, FHP would be looking into those procedures.
"As an agency, we are always looking to make things better and readjust," she said. "We're still adjusting and looking at re-evaluating our procedures."
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, minority leader pro tem, was part of a Senate transportation committee that heard from FHP's director on the response to the 2008 crash. She said this year's I-75 crashes show a failure to implement training and highway closure policies.
"It's obvious that something that should have occurred didn't," she said.
The accidents show the lack of a policy that allows troopers to notify supervisors of hazardous conditions, she said, so that a decision on closing roads can be made.
"Obviously, there's not a system in place for the decision to be made to close," she said.
Task force didn't meet
James Brenner, fire management administrator for the forest service, said his agency played its part in notifying FHP about the fire that led to the crashes, as required under the Highway Safety Smoke Management Interagency Agreement.
The agreement outlines responsibilities for the forest service, FHP and state transportation department when smoke is present on highways. Brenner said the agreement was signed in 2001 and revised after the I-4 crashes.
"That agreement was never forgotten about … The Florida Forest Service was following that agreement to the letter. We did exactly what that agreement told us we had to do," he said.
But a Florida Department of Transportation supervisor who responded to the I-75 accidents told FDLE investigators he had never seen the agreement. FHP Major Spaulding said he had seen only an earlier version.
The agreement established a highway smoke management task force that included representatives from the agencies. The group hadn't yet met at the time FDLE started investigating the I-75 crashes, according to the FDLE report. And the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, FHP's parent agency, said it did not have a representative named to the panel.
Brenner, a task force member, said the group has since met twice. He defended its failure to previously meet, saying it was supposed to do so only if there were problems with the agreement. The group had planned to meet even before the I-75 crashes, he said.
“The accident did not stimulate the need for the meeting initially,” he said.
The group is now working on changes to parts of the agreement, such as its provisions on signs, he said. After the crashes, state Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, pushed for $1 million in legislative funding for electronic signs on I-75 warning motorists of hazardous conditions.
A legislative aide to Perry, Brian Delburn, said traffic cameras providing information on conditions are set to be installed between the Micanopy and Northwest 39th Avenue exits by the end of August. The signs await studies on their placement before being installed, he said.
Lack of troopers on the scene
In its report, FDLE found that FHP troopers failed to monitor conditions after the reopening of I-75.
Gourley left the interstate and traveled to U.S. 441, while Simmons and a trooper left and went on a meal break. Other troopers were in a rest area, one writing a report and the other providing security.
In the report, there is a controversy about whether Gourley asked the Alachua County Sheriff's Office to wait around after the reopening of the road. Gourley said he did. Darnell said she's not sure if such a recommendation was made.
“It may be that's his perspective,” she said. “He may have told somebody, but he could've been talking as a recommendation and not an order. Were there some toes stepped on there? Yeah. But it's not a lifelong injury. People have recovered.”
State Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Cross Creek Republican and a former Alachua County sheriff, has attributed problems with the I-75 crashes to inadequate FHP staffing. Brenner made a similar assessment, saying that a trooper might also have closed I-4 in 2008 before those crashes if not handling another case.
“They just don't have enough people — and I don't think there's any way to have enough — to be everywhere,” he said.
In 2008, the only blame assigned was to the drivers who crashed while observing the accidents on I-4. Similarly, the 2012 FDLE investigation found no one at FHP acted with criminal intent and made no recommendations for discipline.
Rasmussen, the FHP spokeswoman, said no troopers were suspended or reprimanded for their association with the crashes. Traffic homicide investigations were handed over to the State Attorney's Office for review, she said.
“That happens any time there's a death-related incident involving a crash to see if there's charges,” she said, “and enough to charge the driver.”
Heidelberg, the spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said comparisons should not be made between the 2008 and 2012 incidents because, unlike at Paynes Prairie, the interstate was not closed in 2008.
But lawmakers such as Perry said, after reviewing the FDLE report, that the lack of action in 2008 raises concerns that the same thing will happen again.
“There are some good recommendations, but there were some good recommendations back in 2008,” he told The Sun in April. He was out of the country last week and unavailable for additional comment.
“We cannot sit back and say, ‘OK, we understand some mistakes were made, and we need to make changes.' We need to have accountability,” he said earlier. “Reports and studies and task forces don't really do any good unless we can implement the changes that have been recommended.”
Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Jon Silman at 374-5380 or email@example.com.
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