Report: Fla. troopers erred before Jan. crashes that killed 11

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida Highway Patrol lieutenant didn’t have any formal training or know the procedures before he reopened 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 that 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 the road, but Lt. John Gourley gave the order because he was worried that 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,” Sgt. Simmons told a sheriff’s deputy in a conversation captured on Sgt. Simmons‘ in-car video equipment.

“I said it will roll in faster than you can shut it down,” Sgt. 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 Lt. Gourley’s decision to reopen the highway.

Once traffic resumed flowing, the Highway Patrol failed to actively monitor the highway conditions, the report said.

Sgt. Simmons twice told Lt. Gourley about the potential for poor visibility to return. Lt. 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; their 17-year-old daughter, Leticia; Mr. Carmo’s 38-year-old brother, Edson Carmo; and Edison Carmo’s girlfriend, Roselia DeSilva, 41.

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