Reports shed more light on deadly I-75 crashes


Published: Sunday, August 12, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 11, 2012 at 10:19 p.m.

The early hours of Jan. 29 were punctuated by frantically broadcast warnings, mad dashes for safety and — for some — sudden death as two dozen drivers on Interstate 75 entered a thick blanket of smoke and fog on Paynes Prairie.

These details and more are contained in a series of Florida Highway Patrol accident reports and a report released Friday concluding one of two homicide investigations into the wrecks that followed, which killed 11 and injured as many as 46.

The picture painted in these reports is the most detailed offered to date and allows for the first time a clear look at the sequence of events surrounding what is believed to be the deadliest auto accident in Florida history.

The FHP homicide investigation concludes that no charges are warranted. It deals only with the southbound crashes, which killed four of the 11.

The report provides new, first-hand glimpses into the frightening conditions when drivers hit a wall of fog and thick smoke from a smoldering wildfire on Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

“All of a sudden he heard other truck drivers on the CB radio. They were yelling ‘We can't see. We're stopped in the road. Southbound stop!' ” the report recounts of an interview with trucker Monroe Earl Millwood. “By the time he has slowed to about 10 miles per hour, he said ‘It just rolled across the front of my truck and I lost total visibility.' In a matter of less than a second, he had zero visibility.”

The report states that several of the drivers failed to slow down in time to avoid colliding with the cars and trucks in front of them. It also states that no evidence such as skid marks could be found to determine how early or hard drivers tried to stop because a section of the road was melted from the inferno of semitrailers and SUVs that were burned in the crash.

Accidents occurred just after 4 a.m. in both the northbound and southbound lanes. The interstate had been closed to traffic for about 2 hours because of smoke from a brush fire just off U.S. 441 in Paynes Prairie that was first reported the afternoon before.

Authorities reopened I-75 about 3:30 a.m. because conditions had cleared. But a dense bank of smoke rolled over the south end of the prairie along I-75 by 4 a.m.

FHP Lt. Col. Ernie Duarte said the northbound homicide investigation is done but will not be made public until a review by the State Attorney's Office is complete.

“Our investigation has been completed and turned over to the State Attorney's Office for a decision on how to proceed,” Duarte said. “It should have a lot more investigative documents. Seven people died in that one and four in the southbound.”

Six vehicles were involved in the southbound fatal crashes including two tractor-trailer rigs that had stopped in the traffic lanes.

Millwood stopped his rig — loaded with Proctor and Gamble paper products destined for a Publix warehouse in Sarasota — in the right lane while a semi driven by Cynthia Sue Laird of Glen St. Mary for FedEx stopped in the middle lane. She got on her CB to warn others.

“She put her 4-way flashers on, and her brake lights would have been on as well,” the report states. “She picked up her cellphone to dial 911 and felt something run into the rear of her vehicle.”

Sleeping in the cab was her husband, Kenneth Joseph Laird, who described the scene as a “pure wall of black and gray” when he was awakened by the impact of cars hitting the back of the truck

Plowing into Millwood's trailer was a Dodge Dakota hauling a pop-up camper driven by Michael Hughes of Pensacola. Hughes, his wife, Lori Lynn Brock-Hughes, and daughter Sabryna Dawn Louise Hughes-Gilley were heading to Sarasota for a funeral.

The Dakota was so badly burned officials did not know Sabryna's body was in the back seat until the Medical Examiner's Office determined the remains included a third body.

The FHP initially suspected that drugs or alcohol was likely a contributing factor in the Hughes crash, the report states. The charred remnants of what appeared to be a beer can with liquid that smelled like beer was found in the pickup, according to the report, and the remains of a metal pipe like one used to smoke marijuana also was found.

Toxicology tests were negative for alcohol but did show marijuana in Michael Hughes' system. However, the level of impairment could not be determined.

The autopsy found no soot in his trachea or esophagus, indicating he was not breathing when the fire occurred and that he likely died as a result of the crash rather than the fire. His wife and daughter had soot in their lungs, indicating they were breathing at the time of the fire.

Shelsie Lynn Ballew was driving back to Ocala with Aimee Lynne Nelson, her co-worker at the Forum nightclub in Gainesville, in Ballew's 2004 Ford Expedition. They had tried to take U.S. 441, but it was closed, so they stopped at Taco Bell and then got on I-75.

“They were talking amongst themselves when they drove into an area (Ballew) described as ‘nothing but white' and did not know if it was fog or smoke,” the report states. “The visibility dropped to zero and she had ‘never been in anything that thick, ever.' ”

Ballew plowed into Hughes' pickup, but she and Nelson were able to flee the Expedition for safety.

All three vehicles — Millwood's trailer, Hughes' SUV and Ballew's SUV — burned. Millwood had decoupled the cab on the semi and moved it off the road, so it did not burn.

The fourth death in the southbound lanes occurred after Richard Szabados of Silver Springs hit Laird's semi from behind. He got out of his 2008 Dodge pickup after suffering only minor injuries.

Vontavia Robinson, 22, of Williston, whose license had recently been suspended before the crash as a habitual traffic offender, had been bowling with his brother earlier the night of the crashes. He drove into Szabados' pickup, and the force of the impact lifted the pickup on top of Robinson's 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix, and Robinson was killed.

FHP's homicide report includes autopsy information and examinations of vehicles, both of which may factor into litigation. Lawyers representing more than 18 victims have filed notices of intent to sue the Florida Highway Patrol and other government agencies over the crashes.

Dr. Marie Herrmann, medical examiner for Districts 7 and 24, was not involved in the autopsies of the I-75 crash victims but said the information provided through the procedure is invaluable.

“People may say, ‘The body is so burned, so why are you bothering to do an autopsy?' Well, because the autopsy tells us so much,” she said. “Autopsy information may not be the heart of a (legal) case, but it will be an important part for both the plaintiff and the defense side.”

The homicide report found that Millwood's truck had an audible air leak in a chamber axle, making it unable to maintain air pressure with the brakes applied.

The leak is a violation of federal code, but the report states it could not be determined if the leak existed prior to the crash.

State Attorney Bill Cervone said the northbound homicide report is still under review.

On Friday, Cervone said DUI charges were filed against two northbound drivers who were involved in the crashes. Those crashes did not cause or contribute to any of the deaths or severe injuries.

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