The pre-dawn traffic moved fast on Interstate 75 through Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park outside Gainesville. The highway had been closed for hours after thick fog combined with smoke from a nearby wildfire reduced visibility to near zero, but now it was clear. Until it wasn't.
On both sides of the highway, some cars and trucks stopped as the returning fog and smoke quickly swallowed the night. Those behind them didn't. There were collisions. There were explosions. Eleven people died and two dozen were hurt in six crashes involving 24 vehicles a year ago Tuesday in one of worst highway tragedies in Florida history.
In the months since, several survivors have filed notice they plan to file negligence lawsuits against the state and blame has been assigned and deflected. The state has taken some safety measures and others are planned. But whether the state has done enough to prevent future tragedies is unclear.
Paynes Prairie is a low-lying, poorly lit stretch of I-75, which runs the length of Florida from Miami-Dade County into Georgia. Heavy fog and smoke had forced its closure early last Jan. 29, but by about 3 a.m. there was enough visibility that the Florida Highway Patrol was debating whether to reopen it.
A sergeant objected, saying that if the visibility again dropped there wouldn't be time to reclose the highway. But a lieutenant, with support from state forestry and transportation officials, overruled him, citing the danger of drivers taking unfamiliar back roads in the darkness. Within 15 minutes, the sergeant's fears were realized.
"I could see perfect, one second later, it's like walking into a blank, to a white blanket that you can't see nothing," trucker Hector Rodriguez told a FHP investigator after his stopped semi was struck multiple times. "I started hearing people, you know, something banging on the back of the truck. All these accidents bang, everybody bang, like seconds behind each other."
People screamed for help in the darkness, the only light coming from burning cars. When reporters toured the scene hours later, twisted, burned-out vehicles were scattered across the pavement, with smoke still rising from the wreckage.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report issued last April primarily blamed the FHP. It said the lieutenant who ordered the road reopened had no formal training in procedures for reopening roads.
The FHP responded to the report in August, defending its actions. "Even if each of the recommendations made by the FDLE in its incident review were to have been present or occurred that night, it is probable the same decision would have been reached," it said.
It also put a lot of the blame on the drivers, saying "No amount of planning or policy will take the place of driver reaction to low visibility and unpredictable conditions."
Since the accident, the FHP and other state agencies have instituted new safety measures, but even stronger initiatives are still in the planning stages and are at least a year away from being implemented.
Among those the FHP has already implemented:
- It reviewed all of its relevant policies governing road closures and a watch supervisor in each troop is now responsible for the oversight of all significant incidents.
- It trained more than 6,000 sworn Florida Turnpike Enterprise radio communications members and reserve troopers on road closure procedures and protocols.
- It will now conduct an annual review its road closure protocols with the Florida Forest Service.
- It is conducting a public awareness campaign on driving in the smoke and fog, featuring billboards in four cities.
"The Florida Highway Patrol updated its policies, annual training for troopers and guidelines to ensure the most effective response to smoke/fog incidents on Florida highways," FHP spokeswoman Nancy Rasmussen wrote in a statement to The Associated Press. "Our continued partnerships ...assist us with providing information on decisions concerning roadway closures, which are made appropriately and on a case-by-case basis by on-scene personnel, based on their assessment of visibility, safety and other factors."
The Florida Department of Transportation is spending $4 million to improve safety on the Paynes Prairie stretch of I-75, work that won't be completed for at least a year.
There are already new programmable signs in each direction that can warn drivers of "Heavy Fog" or other dangers. In addition, FDOT spokesman Gina Busscher said closed-circuit TV cameras, located every mile from the south side of Paynes Prairie State Preserve to two miles north of the SR-222 interchange, have been in place since August.
Further improvements include more message signs, permanent closed-circuit cameras, vehicle detectors, visibility sensors, a fiber optic network to ensure reliable data transmission and infrared detection cameras. The federal government has recommended using closed-circuit TV monitoring for fog-prone roads for 20 years.
There are also plans for the same improvements on US -441, which runs parallel to I-75 through Paynes Prairie.
FDOT State Traffic Operations Engineer Mark Wilson wrote in a statement to The Associated Press that the changes will give the agency "the ability to detect traffic or weather concerns quickly, assess the issue and then quickly implement a response."
Finding closure for the victims of last year's crashes may not come as quickly, though.