The Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement concluded state troopers made errors when deciding to reopening a fog- and smoke-shrouded interstate highway shortly before a series of crashes killed 11 people, state investigators said in a report released last Thursday.
Early in the morning of Jan. 29, wildfire smoke mixed with fog blanketed six-lane Interstate 75 near Gainesville where it cuts through Paynes Prairie State Park, a low area that lacks billboards or other lighting, according to a report in the Washington Post.
The report noted that Highway Patrol Sgt. Bruce Simmons wanted to keep the highway closed, but higher-ranking Lt. John Gourley ordered the highway reopened because visibility had improved. Gourley was reportedly worried that keeping the highway closed would be dangerous.
Within 30 minutes of the highway reopening, the first of six separate fatal crashes began, involving six semi-trailer trucks, at least a dozen cars and pickup trucks, a van and a motorhome. Some vehicles burst into flames, killing and hospitalizing 18.
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.
Simmons, in a conversation recorded on a state trooper’s in-car video equipment, said that he argued against reopening the road: “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. Other factors in Gourley’s 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 said he also worried that directing drivers onto unfamiliar roads in the early morning hours would be hazardous.
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 Florida Forestry Service or National Weather Service.
Once traffic resumed flowing, the Highway Patrol failed to actively monitor the highway conditions, the report said.