FDLE: No criminality in I-75 crash, but protocol changes needed
No one acted with any criminal intent, but better communication, fixed signs and more attention to a trooper who warned that smoke could quickly roll back onto the interstate might have prevented a massive fatal crash on smoky I-75 in January, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Thursday.
In a major review of crashes on the morning of Jan. 29 involving 25 vehicles that killed 11 people, the FDLE said personnel at the Florida Highway Patrol and several other agencies “acted in a manner which they believed was appropriate and in the best interest of restoring the safe and orderly flow of traffic to the roadways.”
Gov. Rick Scott ordered the review after the crash, in the Paynes Prairie section of Alachua County, south of Gainesville.
But FDLE found several things that it said the Highway Patrol should change, some of them immediately to avoid a repeat of the early morning crash.
Some of its main findings were that the FHP doesn’t have specific protocols on when and how to re-open roadways when visibility is low.
The review recounts officers discussing the visibility and whether they think it’s OK to drive, but there’s nothing in their procedures spelling out when safety experts say it is OK, for example.
FDLE also found that the Highway Patrol did little in the way of improving its smoke-and-fog procedures after a similar fatal crash on Interstate 4 in Polk County in 2008.
“The specific changes to FHP’s policies and procedures were limited, and subsequent training provided to command personnel was ineffective and poorly memorialized,” FDLE said of changes that were supposed to have been put in place after the 2008 crash.
There were several breakdowns in the early morning hours of Jan. 29, the review found.
One of the bigger problems that appears to have contributed to the disaster was a breakdown in human communications between officers — and a failure to heed the warning of one trooper in particular, FHP Sgt. Bruce Simmons, who advised against re-opening I-75.
The interstate had been closed just after midnight because visibility was “zero,” according to the Alachua County Sheriff’s office, which asked that the highway, where there had also been an earlier accident, be shut down. FHP agreed.
At the same time, the other major north-south roadway in the area, U.S. 441, also was closed because of smoke from the same fire in Paynes Prairie.
At about 3 a.m., the FHP commander on the scene, Lt. John Gourley, drove the section of interstate and conferred with other officers, saying he thought it could be re-opened because the smoke and fog had lifted.
Simmons said by radio that he agreed the road appeared clear, but said he was “concerned that another cloud might roll through and then we got to go through all this again.” Gourley then said he’d keep Department of Transportation material nearby so it could quickly be closed again if need be, and an Alachua Sheriff’s deputy told Gourley he’d keep personnel “rotating” in the area to monitor visibility.
According to the FDLE report, however, after the road was opened, all the Alachua Sheriff’s personnel left the interstate.
A couple of troopers stayed in the area, but they were at a rest stop — one working security and one writing a report. The others left the area. A short time later, about 4 a.m., the crash occurred.
“After the decision was made to reopen Interstate 75 on January 29, 2012, adequate resources were not dedicated to effectively monitor the environment, particularly when there was an apparent fear that limitation of visibility would likely reoccur,” FDLE said.
“Approximately twenty minutes prior to the fatal crashes, FHP Trooper Steven Downing reported the existence of dense smoke on US 441, in Paynes Prairie, less than one mile east of Interstate 75. However, no immediate measures were taken by FHP to actively monitor the conditions on Interstate 75 in Paynes Prairie,” it said.
FDLE said policy and training need to be improved, noting that Gourley later said he wasn’t aware of any procedures for how to open or close a road and hadn’t had any formal training on that.
Gourley was aware of a section of FHP policy saying that it was his responsibility to “restore the orderly flow of traffic as soon as he was able.”
Gourley told investigators that he believed the visibility was OK, and that he also factored in his personal knowledge that road closures often cause accidents as well.
With U.S. 441 closed, the only available detour would have taken traffic onto a two-lane road through a small town in the middle of the night, which he considered dangerous.
FDLE also said the state should review whether it has the appropriate amount of warning signs for certain dangerous areas, like Paynes Prairie, and that a permanent messaging system should be in place.
“Implementation of an effective means of monitoring these areas, and forewarning travelers of adverse conditions could enhance safety on the roadways,” the review noted.
“Due to the low-lying geography of Paynes Prairie, and the history of frequent environmental conditions that cause limitations in visibility in that area, a fixed messaging system should be implemented. These fixed signs and electronic message boards would forewarn travelers of hazardous conditions along the roadway,” it said.
There were no permanent warning signs on the stretch on interstate, and it took time to get temporary ones there.
Rep. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville) filed legislation to get such signs — and lawmakers appropriated $4 million to make upgrades of that nature.
The Department of Transportation plans to study the best way to use the money in fog- and smoke-prone areas, a DOT spokesman said Thursday.
The review also noted that Simmons — the trooper who had suggested keeping the roadway closed — expressed anger about the decision to open it in a conversation with an Alachua deputy later that morning that was captured on his in-car video.
“I tried to tell them to leave that ‘sum-buck’ closed and they wouldn’t listen to me. I said it’s going to roll in again,” Simmons can be heard saying. “… They wouldn’t freaking listen earlier. … I said that it will roll in faster than you can shut it down. This crap wouldn’t have happened if he’d have listened.”