FHP: Drivers made mistakes in I-75 tragedy


Memorial markers for the Hughes family, of Pensacola, Fla., located at mile marker 379 of Interstate 75 in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park Wednesday, January 23, 2013. The family was killed last January in a multi-vehicle crash caused by a combination of low-lying fog and smoke that blanketed the road.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 6:47 p.m.

It was the drivers' fault. They drove too fast. They ignored the warnings. Some of them were impaired. All of them were tired.

That was the conclusion of the Florida Highway Patrol's investigation of the chain reaction of 10 accidents in the smoke- and fog-shrouded northbound lanes of Interstate 75 early in the morning of Jan. 29, 2012.

Those crashes, which occurred within minutes of FHP's decision to reopen I-75 after earlier accidents had shut the interstate, involved 10 northbound vehicles and left seven dead and sent nearly two dozen to area hospitals.

“Had the drivers all reacted ‘prudently' and ‘uniformly' to the conditions by drastically reducing their speeds,” the report states, in a section focusing on the initial crash, “this collision's outcome would not have been so devastating and/or fatal (if it occurred at all).”

The investigation was completed in May, but it was still under review by the State Attorney's Office and not released in August when the report into the four deaths and dozens of injuries in the southbound lanes was made public. The report was recently released to The Sun following a public records request.

The 600-page investigation report echoes the conclusion the agency reached in its review of the numerous crashes that occurred in the southbound lanes.

Despite numerous criticisms in a lengthy review by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement of the FHP's actions taken before the deadly crashes, believed to be the deadliest in state history, no one at FHP has been disciplined. The officer who made the controversial decision to reopen the interstate has since been promoted and reassigned.

The conclusions reached by Master Cpl. Jessie Stalnaker, a senior traffic homicide investigator, detailed mistakes he said the drivers made as they drove into “a wall of smoke” from a nearby brush fire that was mixing with a layer of fog rolling across the interstate just as vehicles crossed into Paynes Prairie.

“The drivers failed to adequately or prudently reduce their speeds enough to be able to avert colliding into objects or slower traffic ahead of them in relation to the ‘special hazards' occurring,” he wrote.

The report points out that a “widely varying range of individual human factors of 10 different drivers” contributed to the accidents.

“At least three, possibly four people were impaired or influenced by intoxicants, some lacked significant years of driving experience and some, if not most, were most probably fatigued at 4 a.m. when the crashes began,” the according to the report.

Two drivers were cited for DUI following the crashes. Another driver, Stalnaker wrote, would have been charged with DUI manslaughter had he survived.

Stalnaker described coming upon the wreckage in the southbound lanes around 7 a.m., nearly three hours after the first crashes were reported. He found a scene “that can only be described as one of overwhelming total devastation.'' Mangled and burned vehicles stretched along much of the highway through Paynes Prairie and first responders were still battling “a massive fire.” He drove through the wreckage and turned onto the northbound lanes, arriving at what he called “total chaos.”

Stalnaker, who noted that he had experienced a similar fatality crash scene involving smoke and fog “some years back,” began painstakingly detailing the horrors surrounding him.

After closely studying numerous factors such as the condition of the vehicles, the tire marks on the highway and the placement of the bodies in the vehicles, he concluded that the drivers did not react appropriately to the hazardous conditions that they unexpectedly encountered.

The drivers, he wrote, would have hit patchy smoke just before entering the “thick blanket'' or wall of smoke that should have warned them of what was ahead. But by his calculations, they should have been able to see the smoke bank from at least 150 feet away before entering it, even though there are no streetlights in that stretch of interstate.

The drivers also should have seen the pair of temporary yellow metal smoke/fog warning signs that had been posted along the dark interstate about a mile south of Paynes Prairie after an earlier accident.

Those drivers who lived to be interviewed said they had driven into the smoke for several seconds before crashing. All the drivers, Stalnaker wrote, were probably wondering how deep the smoke bank went.

“It is most probable their next reaction was one of panic,'' he surmised. “It would not be prudent to expect any of these drivers to have any standard or ‘normal' type of reaction time.”

Even so, Stalnaker determined the drivers still could have averted the catastrophe.

“Assuming that all the drivers were traveling at 70 mph and all would have reacted in a correct manner within a normal 2.5 second reaction time, they should have been able to start reacting to this hazard after having traveled about 106 feet into the smoke. They should have been able to decelerate to a stop within 310 feet and 514 feet.”

That's not what happened.

As a tractor-trailer and two cars hit the smoke, they slowed to a stop. Within seconds, seven other vehicles plowed into them from behind. Stalnaker determined those drivers failed to slow down fast enough.

“Their driving actions contributed to the overall occurrence of the crashes, which may have been avoided or its devastating results lessened had they adhered to the warning signs and slowed to accommodate the hazardous conditions,” his report states.

Stalnaker pointed out that the drivers all violated Florida Statute 316.185, which reads in part that “the fact that the speed of a vehicle is lower than the prescribed limits shall not relieve the driver from the duty to decrease speed when approaching ... special hazards. ... Speed shall be decreased to avoid colliding with any vehicle.”

The FHP, after conferring with the State Attorney's Office, decided not to charge any of the surviving drivers for violating that law because of the “overall circumstances” of that morning.

However, two of the surviving drivers — Jeffrey Mitchell and James Madison — were charged with DUI.

Mitchell, 51, of Venice, was alone in a 2006 Eclipse. He had a blood alcohol level of .105 and troopers found several open, unopened and broken bottles of beer in the car. He was taken to Shands at the University of Florida in critical condition.

Madison, 22, of Winter Park, was with three other men in a 2007 Infinity returning from the Gasparilla festival in Tampa, where the passengers said they had all been drinking. Madison, they said, was driving because “he was the most sober,” according to the report. He was the only one in the car taken to the hospital with serious injuries. His blood alcohol level was .123, the report states.

Neither drivers' actions contributed directly to the crashes, the investigation determined, and thus they were each cited for misdemeanor DUI.

Toxicology tests showed that two of those killed — Jason Lee Raikes, 26, of North Chesterfield, Va., and Christie Nguyen, 27, of Gainesville — were “high” on marijuana. Stalnaker determined that Raikes' driving directly contributed to the fatal wreck. Had he survived, he would have been charged with DUI manslaughter.

The other fatalities were all determined to be accidental and none of the drivers were found to be impaired.

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