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Ghosts of bad decisions haunt Florida highway

By Craig Pittman
SCOTT KEELER | Times Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman.

et me tell you a ghost story.

No, I’m not talking about some ectoplasmic special effect from Disney’s Haunted Mansion. I’m talking about a real ghost story. A Florida ghost story.

You wouldn’t think a place that’s this bright and sunny would be a hangout for sinister shades, but it is. You find them all over Florida, from the haunted Pensacola Lighthouse up in the Panhandle to the infamous "Robert the Doll" on display in Key West, also known as "the original Chucky."

Spooky stuff pops up in Florida news all the time. We had a wannabe vampire who sank her teeth into a senior citizen at a vacant Hooters in St. Petersburg, and a zombie cat that clawed its way out of an early grave in Tampa.

Meanwhile, down in South Florida, they’ve got ghost ships washing up on the beaches, gigantic pythons crawling all over the place gobbling up everything in their path and so many people sacrificing chickens to influence cases at the Miami-Dade courthouse that the janitors have formed what they call "the Voodoo Squad" to clean them up every morning.

Pretty scary, huh, kids?

But the ghost story I want to talk about is the one on Interstate 4.

You know I-4, the 132-mile road that doesn’t really run from town to town but just connects one highway (I-275) to another (I-95). This is the one thoroughfare in Florida where the drivers are supposed to be thoroughly distracted. It takes you past not just Disney World but also Universal, Sea World, Dinosaur World (which is, yes, full of dinosaurs) and the Holy Land Experience, the Bible-themed park where you can see Jesus re-crucified six days a week.

Everyone who lives in Florida or visits it frequently has traveled on I-4, usually all at the same time. The I-4 traffic tie-ups are the stuff of legends, the most epic clogs this side of California’s Car-mageddon.

But what few people know is that I-4 is under a ghostly curse.

For the proper effect, read this next part with a flashlight under your chin:

The story goes that in 1886, a family of four German immigrants died of yellow fever at a small settlement near present-day Sanford. Their priest, who was visiting Tampa, couldn’t make it back in time to administer the last rites because he, too, fell dead from the fever.

So the unblessed quartet were duly buried in a farmer’s field, and there they apparently rested in peace — until around 1961, when I-4 was built through that area.

The state Department of Transportation paved right over their graves, rolling a slab of pavement across their final resting place just the way it rolls over thousands of acres of wetlands and forest and farmland every chance it gets.

Now that spot where the dead were paved over — it’s on the approach to a bridge over the St. Johns River — is known as the "I-4 Dead Zone." It’s supposedly cursed by frequent wrecks and other signs of bad luck. Those vindictive ghosts have declared war on the motorists who dare cross their desecrated graves — although apparently not on the DOT that actually did the desecrating.

The thing is, all of I-4 is like that, not just the "Dead Zone." That road is a death trap. Last year I-4 was declared the most dangerous road in America, with 1.41 fatalities per mile. We could blame this on poor land-use decisions, poor traffic design and control and lax law enforcement — or we could blame the I-4 ghosts!

In fact, maybe we could even blame the I-4 Curse for the fact that Florida’s elected leaders rejected the idea of building a high-speed rail line parallel to it, even though it would have taken a lot of motorists off that hellish highway. The ghosts clouded their brains so they’d believe we would all rather be stuck in massive, coronary-inducing traffic jams than ride a fast train.

Yes, that makes sense. Let’s not blame the people making the decisions. Let’s blame those darn immigrants.

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.