FDLE: Troopers erred in fatal I-75 pileup

Highway was blanketed with smoke and fog, 11 people killed

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A Florida Highway Patrol sergeant twice expressed concerns about reopening Interstate 75 south of Gainesville shortly before two massive crashes that killed 11 people in January.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report released Thursday says the FHP erred in reopening fog- and smoke-shrouded interstate about 30 minutes before the crash in January.

The report found no criminal violations, but identified communication problems among troopers and between the FHP and other agencies.

DOCUMENT: FDLE I-75 Incident Review

Just after 4 a.m. on Jan. 29, about 20 vehicles were involved in crashes on both sides of I-75 south of Gainesville, leaving 11 dead and 22 injured.  Some vehicles burst into flames, making it difficult to identify the victims.

Earlier that night I-75 was closed to traffic for three hours because of low visibility due to smoke from a smoldering wildfire combined with fog. 

The incident review that FHP Sgt. Bruce Simmons expressed concern about reopening the highway to Lt. John Gourley twice shortly before the chain-reaction wrecks. 

"At Lieutenant Gourley's order, I-75 was reopened in both directions even though they had a report of heavy smoke about a mile away," investigators found.

The report also noted that inaccurate and incomplete information was given to troopers in the field throughout the night.

Based on its findings, the FDLE makes three recommendations:

  • Traffic control guidelines should become specific policies with mandatory protocols on all incidents affecting traffic flow and highway safety.
  • The FHP should conduct an internal inquiry into a discrepancy in sworn technology about the pile-up provided by an FHP sergeant and captain about their conversation two days after the wreck.
  • Signage on Florida roads should be evaluated for its ability to warn motorists about limited visibility. Low-lying areas such as Paynes Prairie, where environmental conditions contribute to limited visibility, should be monitored.

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature appropriated money for visibility evaluation equipment and signage to warn travelers on all Florida interstates.

A spokesman for the FHP told Channel 4 the agency is still reviewing the findings, but troopers have already updated protocols on responding to low-visibility situations and improved coordination with the Florida Forestry Service about fire activity.

No actions have been taken against the troopers named in the report, but the FHP and inspector general will determine if an internal investigation is warranted.

An experienced transportation attorney said there's a lot in this report that will bolster the expected lawsuits when they're filed.

"There's a lot of particular findings that will be very helpful," Sean Cronin said. "There's a lot of information that was known here that was not acted upon. There's a very serious fire that'ss going on just south of Gainesville, and it was not quite taken seriously enough."

Copyright 2012 by News4Jax.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.