I-75 crashes changed lives of relatives, first responders
Published: Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 10:21 p.m.
Fog is a common phenomenon on Paynes Prairie — the geological bowl south of Gainesville — when temperature and moisture reach a sweet spot that suspends droplets of water in the air.
Smoke is not unheard of, either. Brush fires in the area can smolder even when the surface flames are doused.
But the combination that hung over the southern half of the section of Interstate 75 that spans Paynes Prairie in the early morning hours of Jan. 29, 2012, was unlike any mix of fog and smoke seen before on the prairie.
Drivers on the road that morning later described a blanket of almost instant blindness. Cars and trucks began plowing into one another in a series of wrecks that ultimately left 11 people dead and 21 injured.
Trucks and cars caught fire. Seven people were killed at one scene. Others were fortunate enough to veer completely off the travel lanes, ending up in the relative safety of a barrier fence separating the interstate from the swamp.
The crashes began happening about 4 a.m., roughly a half-hour after the Florida Highway Patrol had decided to reopen I-75 because it appeared the “superfog” had dissipated.
But a patch of it formed again without detection. Motorists who encountered it said visibility was zero.
In the months that followed, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement issued a report which found that FHP did not follow several protocols regarding the closing and reopening of roads during hazardous conditions.
FHP put most of the blame on drivers but has set up new guidelines and training. It also is monitoring more closely areas in which fog and smoke might mix.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Transportation is about to start installation of $2.1 million in cameras, sensors, signs and other technology to quickly detect hazardous conditions and alert drivers.
But two years later, first responders, a survivor and family members of those who did not survive say that morning changed their lives.
David and Kathy Gilley lost a granddaughter — and some hope along with her — when Sabryna Dawn Louise Hughes-Gilley died in the crashes.
“Being she was our first born grandchild, we had a lot of plans and hopes. I had bought her a Gerber Grow Up Plan life insurance policy when she was 3 months old … not for this but so she could borrow on it for college,” David Gilley said in an email to The Sun. “That was all dashed on 1/29/12. Hardest thing in my life was to go to that cardboard box and pull out a life insurance packet I had in there 17 years earlier to use … not for her future, but for the reason one would take out a life insurance policy. I did not like making the call to Gerber, either.”
Sabryna was a passenger in a Dodge Dakota hauling a pop-up camper driven by her father, Michael Hughes. Also in the pickup was her stepmother, Lori Brock-Hughes. The Pensacola family was heading to Sarasota for a funeral.
Michael Hughes, unable to see far ahead, plowed into a trailer hauling a load of Proctor and Gamble paper products to a Publix warehouse in Sarasota.
The trailer and the pickup were incinerated by fire, along with the Ford Expedition of Ocala resident Shelsie Ballew after she drove into the Dakota. Ballew and passenger Aimee Nelson survived.
The Gilleys said they think often of the victims and find solace in their faith.
“People point fingers at the FHP, the state, etc. If God's will was this, we pray for him to help us. Our faith in him helps us … not to understand but to believe in him and his plan,” David Gilley said. “Believe me, I did much searching for the answer why as we all did. When God is ready, we all will know … without blame.
“We remember her so much in our hearts along with everyone who died there … Me personally, there is no amount of money that can bring us relief on this. Too much finger-pointing.”
Last week, Lt. J.J. Moran retired from the Alachua County Sheriff's Office after 24 years with the agency. A lot of memories of his experiences will stay with him, maybe none more so than the I-75 crashes.
“I think about it all the time when I drive down the road. I went down there the other day and could tell where it happened because of the asphalt,” Moran said. “It was terrible. It was a terrible night. I was watch commander, so I was in charge of the overall scene, and it was pretty crazy.”
The primary crashes caused by the heavy smoke and fog that mixed on I-75 at the southern end of Paynes Prairie began about 4 a.m., but earlier accidents had occurred on U.S. 441.
Moran said he was on U.S. 441 when calls to 911 started coming in from I-75, so he made his way there.
It was a dire, dangerous situation. The fog and smoke were so heavy that visibility was practically nothing. Yet sounds could be heard — crashes, tires blowing, people calling out and even bullets.
“It was scary. There were bullets going off from a car on fire that had some ammunition in it,” Moran said. “People were screaming for help. It was like a war zone. That's the best way to describe it.”
As watch commander, Moran was in charge of the Sheriff's Office's response. He made the decision to send deputies into the zone in pairs rather than alone for safety.
He said the experience made him a better manager. It also made him more aware of the preciousness of life.
“Every day is a gift. When you look at something like that, you think about how short life is. You're traveling down the road, and the next minute you're dead,” Moran said. “I told the sheriff that night and the command staff that we were very lucky. I was very sorry about the families that lost loved ones, but we were very, very lucky we weren't burying a deputy sheriff after that.”
Shelsie Ballew says she is grateful not only for her own life but also that of her 4-year-old son, Kaedyn.
Before the crashes, Kaedyn was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 10 months old. It was treated and in remission, but returned last year.
“Kaedyn relapsed — his cancer returned. He had a bone marrow transplant, and he's 10 months out now and is doing really good,” Ballew said. “There were a lot of lives lost that day. So of course, I think about that.”
Ballew and friend Aimee Nelson were heading home to Ocala after work in a Gainesville nightclub. She drove into a pickup truck that had rear-ended a trailer.
The women heard other crashes happening and had difficulty getting out of Ballew's Ford Expedition because of the damage, but they managed to scramble out moments before it caught fire. The trailer, the pickup and Ballew's SUV were destroyed by fire.
Ballew said she still gets some aches and pains but otherwise is fine. She quit working in Gainesville a week or so after the accident. “I get scared of fog. I had some anxieties. It wasn't worth the drive anymore,” Ballew said. “What will trigger memories of that night is if I'm driving late and it's foggy. That scares me half to death. Or if it starts raining really hard and I can't see. I typically pull off.”
Among all the legal claims filed in the wake of the accidents is one against Ballew. But Ballew said she has been more concerned about the health of Kaedyn. The youngster was treated at UF Health Shands Hospital and became friends with UF basketball players Patric Young and Will Yeguete.
The players met Kaedyn on a visit to the UF Health Shands Children's Hospital. They continued to visit and keep in contact with the family through Kaedyn's lengthy hospitalization. On his last day in the hospital, they brought him gifts, including a pair of Yeguete's basketball shoes, and helped carry the family's belongings to the car.
“With everything that has gone on with Kaedyn, I've learned how to deal with stuff,” Ballew said. “As long as I have Kaedyn in my life, everything else is just, whatever, what can you do?”
Alachua County Fire Rescue personnel who were among the first responders to the crashes think often about fog — how it affected them that morning and how it affects them now.
“Everybody asks me about the fog,” Lt. Rodney Rucker said. “The only thing I can come up with over two years is that the fog was the curse and the blessing all wrapped up into one. If I got there on a beautiful clear day and saw all that carnage, it would be a lot to absorb. It would be much tougher for me. But that's not how it happened.”
Instead, it was so dark, and the fog and smoke so thick, that the responders could not see anything.
Driver/operator Wyatt Byles said he walked right up to a burning trailer. He could feel the heat before he could see the fire.
“I was like, oh, there it is,” Byles said.
District Chief Jeff Harpe said personnel were crawling on the interstate. “We had people walking, feeling bumps on the road with a hand on their vehicle because they can't see anything,” Harpe said.
Assistant Chief Larry Stewart said he had to use an automatic vehicle locator on his computer to determine where the trucks were. But even then, he had no idea where his people were.
“One of our biggest concerns out there was our own people,” Stewart said. “One of the things that was scaring me was that there was a hazmat. I remember the conversation with Jeff — 'We have to find that (hazardous material) because if we have a high-order detonation, you guys are going to be dead.' ”
All 55 ACFR personnel who worked the scene survived. And just as importantly to them, all the accident victims they helped also survived. The 11 fatalities died on or near impact.
Sitting at the dining table in Station 16 on Fort Clarke Boulevard during a recent cold evening, Stewart, Rucker, Harpe and Byles recounted their experiences that morning and how they've come to terms with the crashes — and with the danger of their job — during the two years since.
Rucker, in his 16th year with the department, worked many accidents on I-75 before and after the crashes. All of them are nerve-wracking, he said.
“My family always asks what scares me,” Rucker said. “I would much rather go into a burning building than an interstate. I think the majority of us would say that. We feel we have some sort of control in a burning building. The interstates are ridiculously dangerous.”
Harpe said sometimes a brush fire or foggy morning will turn his thoughts to that early morning.
“I'll catch myself sometimes going to a call to a fire or a wreck, and I'll be like, man, it can't be that bad — we can see,” Harpe said. “Every once in a while it will come up among us, but it's just not a conversation piece. We spent two years trying not to talk about it.”
But Stewart said the agency learned a lot from the tragedy and needs to pass that on.
“It's important that the guys that were there discuss it with the guys we are fixing to hire. It's important that they understand some of the lessons learned firsthand,” Stewart said. “We are getting ready to do a big hire, and one good thing about the fire service is that I learned things from my officers that I didn't know. It's important that we pass that oral tradition down to the guys that are coming up.”
In his new job, former Alachua County Sheriff's Deputy Brandon Roberts spends a lot of time driving the interstates of Mississippi looking for drug smugglers.
The demand of the job is ironic, given Roberts' general unease on interstates.
“I'm more fearful now of the highways than I've ever been because of that situation,” Roberts said of the I-75 crashes. “It did change me.”
Roberts was one of the first deputies to arrive on I-75 when calls of the crashes started coming in.
A positive lasting memory is how well all the agencies that responded, including ASO and ACFR, worked together, Roberts said. The agencies train for mass-response incidents, he said, but they were dealt a wildcard with the circumstances of Jan. 29, 2012, particularly the extreme lack of visibility.
Roberts said that while he was still with ASO, it was tough every time he passed a burned spot in the road. The location was where the trailer hauling napkins and paper towels was rear-ended by Michael Hughes and then Shelsie Ballew.
“It was rough to know that I was standing there and that we couldn't do anything for them,” Roberts said.
Roberts still travels to Florida frequently and said that when he crosses Paynes Prairie on I-75, he has flashbacks.
Now a federal task force officer with the U.S. Treasury Department, Roberts said he is often on interstates. Roberts said he is fortunate that he can largely set his own schedule.
“I pretty much refuse to work in the fog anymore because of that night,” Roberts said. “If there is any fog, I'm not going to put myself in that position anymore. That situation was just terrible. There is no reason for anybody to have had to drive through that, and I just won't go in fog anymore.”
A horror movie analogy was used by Alachua County Sheriff's Deputy Matthew Yakubsin to describe the conditions he faced when he made his way onto Paynes Prairie the morning of Jan. 29, 2012.
“It was like a blanket of black smoke. You know that movie 'The Fog'? I had a patrol car right in front of me with its lights on, and once it hit that line, you couldn't even see the lights,” Yakubsin said. “It was a very eerie feeling. It's driving into the unknown.”
Between focusing on the work he needed to do to save lives and not being able see, Yakubsin said he did not know how bad the series of crashes were until both the sky and the scenes began clearing.
Deprived of sight, sound was more of a guide to the people who needed help.
“In this instance, we couldn't see it or feel it or smell it. All you smelled was smoke,” Yakubsin said. “As humans, we use our senses to build how we picture things. For example, I didn't know that there was a semi flipped right in front of my patrol car until the smoke cleared.”
Yakubsin said he was overwhelmed once the adrenaline wore off and he saw the full picture of what had happened.
In the days afterward, Yakubsin said his thoughts centered on gratefulness that the first responders made it out alive. He credited that to the Sheriff's Office's command staff.
He said he also was pleased that lives were saved.
“Every life that we touched stayed alive,” he said. “It's sad that we lost lives, but the people that we touched or pulled out all lived.”
Yakubsin said he remembers the incident every time he drives across the prairie. The smell of smoke from burning rubber triggers the memories too. And, of course, fog.
“It was the most scary, horrific thing I've ever been through in my life. I hope I never have to go through something like that. We train for it every day, but I wouldn't ask anyone to do that again.”