TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida Highway Patrol lieutenant didn't have any formal training or know the procedures before he re-opened a fog- and smoke-shrouded highway where a series of crashes killed 11 people in January, investigators said in a report released Thursday.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement report concluded troopers made errors but found no criminal violations.
Early in the morning of Jan. 29, wildfire smoke mixed with fog blanketed Interstate 75 near Gainesville where it cut through Paynes Prairie State Park, a low area that lacks billboards or other lighting.
Highway Patrol Sgt. Bruce Simmons was concerned about reopening, but Lt. John Gourley gave the order because he was worried keeping the highway closed also would be dangerous.
At least a dozen cars, pickup trucks and a van, six semitrailer trucks and a motorhome collided in six separate fatal crashes. Some vehicles burst into flames, making it difficult to identify the dead. Eighteen other victims were hospitalized.
"I tried to tell them to leave that 'Sum ... buck closed and they wouldn't listen to me," Simmons told a sheriff's deputy in a conversation captured on Simmons' in-car video equipment.
"I said it will roll in faster than you can shut it down," Simmons continued. "This crap wouldn't have happened if he'd have listened."
The report faulted the Highway Patrol for failing to create and implement effective guidelines for such situations and said troopers failed to adequately share critical information among themselves just before the crashes occurred.
It noted, though, that other governmental agencies including the Florida Forest Service and state Department of Transportation supported Gourley's decision to reopen the highway.
Once traffic resumed flowing, the Highway Patrol failed to actively monitor the highway conditions, the report said.
Simmons twice told Gourley about the potential for poor visibility to return. Gourley, though, was worried that keeping the highway closed would result in secondary crashes based on his prior experience investigating such wrecks.
Other factors in his decision were that the major detour route, U.S. 441, also was closed and the only alternative was a two-lane road through a small town that couldn't handle heavy traffic. He also worried that directing drivers onto unfamiliar roads in the early morning hours would be hazardous.
The report recommends the Highway Patrol clarify procedures in its policy manual and adopt mandatory protocols rather than merely suggesting guidelines. It also called for the state to improve roadway signage warning travelers of hazards that may lie ahead.
The Florida Legislature already has appropriated $4 million for visibility evaluation equipment and signage to alert travelers on all Florida interstates.
The victims included five people in a van returning to Kennesaw, Ga., from an Orlando church retreat: 43-year-old pastor Jose Carmo Jr., his wife, Arianna, 39, and their 17-year-old daughter, Leticia, as well as Carmo's 38-year-old brother, Edson, and his girlfriend, Roselia DeSilva, 41.
The Carmos were originally from Brazil. Another daughter, 15-year-old Lidiane Carmo, survived.
Seventeen-year-old Sabryna Hughes Gilley died with her father, Michael Hughes, 39, and her stepmother, Lori Lynne Brock-Hughes, 46, in a pickup truck. They were on their way from Pensacola to Sarasota for a relative's funeral.
Vontavia Robinson, 22, of Williston died when his car crashed into the back of another pickup that had slammed into a semi stopped in the middle southbound lane.
Jason Lee Raikes, 26, and his girlfriend, Christie Diana Nguyen, 27, were killed when their Toyota Matrix crashed in the northbound lanes. Raikes had moved to Gainesville from Richmond, Va., a year earlier to be with Nguyen.
Associated Press writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report.