TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Florida Highway Patrol sergeant opposed reopening a fog- and smoke-shrouded interstate highway, but he was overruled by a higher-ranking officer shortly before a series of crashes killed 11 people, state investigators said in a report released Thursday.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded state troopers made errors but found no criminal violations.
Early in the morning of Jan. 29, wildfire smoke mixed with fog blanketed six-lane 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 wanted to keep the highway closed, but Lt. John Gourley gave the order to reopen it because visibility had improved. Gourley was worried keeping the highway closed also would be dangerous.
Within 30 minutes of the highway reopening, the first of six separate fatal crashes began, involving at least a dozen cars, pickup trucks and a van, six semitrailer trucks and a motorhome. Some vehicles burst into flames, making it difficult to identify the dead. Eighteen other victims were hospitalized.
Simmons used some rural slang in telling a sheriff's deputy, in a conversation recorded on the trooper's in-car video equipment, that he argued against reopening it: "I tried to tell them to leave that 'sumbuck closed and they wouldn't listen to me."
"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."
Gourley told investigators he was unaware of any specific policy or procedure and never received any formal training on opening or closing roads.
He did not immediately respond to a telephone message left at the Highway Patrol's Gainesville office seeking comment Thursday. A home phone listing for him could not be found.
The report faulted the Highway Patrol for failing to create effective guidelines for such situations and said troopers did not adequately share critical information among themselves just before the crashes occurred. They never consulted technical specialists with the Forestry Service or National Weather Service.
Once traffic resumed flowing, the Highway Patrol failed to actively monitor the highway conditions, the report said. It noted that Gourley left I-75 to patrol U.S. 441 while Simmons and another trooper took a meal break. A fourth trooper was parked writing a report and fifth was at his off-duty job working security at a rest area.
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 U.S. 441, the major detour route, 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.
Col. David Brierton, the Highway Patrol's director, said in a statement that he was still reviewing the report with the agency's inspector general's office and would respond in the next few weeks.
"As a result of our own after-action review, the Patrol is already making some changes, to include training and protocol changes," Brierton said. He said his agency would continue to work with the state Department of Transportation and Florida Forestry Service "to implement best practices."
It's too early to consider disciplinary action, said Courtney Heidelberg, spokeswoman of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which includes the Highway Patrol. She noted the department asked for an outside investigation, which then was ordered by Gov. Rick Scott.
The Highway Patrol also is conducting a homicide investigation, which is expected to be completed in mid-May, Heidelberg said.
The report recommends the Highway Patrol clarify procedures in its policy manual and adopt mandatory protocols rather than merely suggesting guidelines. It also calls for the state to improve roadway warning signage.
The Florida Legislature already has appropriated $4 million for visibility evaluation equipment and signage to alert travelers on all Florida interstates. The Department of Transportation has entered one contract with the University of Central Florida and is planning another with Florida State University to research equipment and forecasting procedures.
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.
Alonso Olivera, a friend of the Carmos, who were originally from Brazil, didn't want to talk about the report. Olivera, though, said another daughter, 15-year-old Lidiane Carmo, who survived the crash, is still undergoing physical therapy three times a week but is no longer in the hospital. He said she's also still dealing with the emotional effects of the crash.
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 writers Gary Fineout in Tallahassee and Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this report.