TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Highway Patrol sergeant opposed reopening a fog- and smoke-shrouded interstate highway, but he was overruled by a higher-ranking officer shortly before a series of crashes killed 11 people, state investigators said in a report released Thursday.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded state troopers made errors but found no criminal violations.
Early on Jan. 29, wildfire smoke mixed with fog blanketed six-lane 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 wanted to keep the highway closed, but Lt. John Gourley gave the order to reopen it because visibility had improved. Gourley was worried keeping the highway closed also would be dangerous.
Within 30 minutes of the highway reopening, the first of six separate fatal crashes began, involving at least a dozen cars, pickup trucks and a van, six semitrailer trucks and a motorhome. Some vehicles burst into flames, making it difficult to identify the dead. Eighteen other victims were hospitalized.
Simmons used some rural slang in telling a sheriff's deputy, in a conversation recorded on the trooper's in-car video equipment, that he argued against reopening it: "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. This ... 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.
He did not immediately respond to a telephone message left at the Highway Patrol's Gainesville office seeking comment Thursday.
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 Forestry Service or National Weather Service.
The accident evoked memories of a 70-car pileup on Interstate 4 in Polk County in 2008 in which fog mixed with smoke from a controlled burn and wiped out visibility. Five people were killed, and reports later blamed drivers and weather factors.
In the Paynes Prairie crash, the report said that once traffic resumed flowing, the Highway Patrol failed to actively monitor the highway conditions. It noted that Gourley left I-75 to patrol U.S. 441 while Simmons and another trooper took a meal break. A fourth trooper was parked writing a report and a fifth was at his off-duty job working security at a rest area.
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.
Other factors in his 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 also worried that directing drivers onto unfamiliar roads in the early morning hours would be hazardous.
Col. David Brierton, the Highway Patrol's director, said in a statement that he was still reviewing the report with the agency's inspector general's office and would respond in the next few weeks.
"As a result of our own after-action review, the Patrol is already making some changes, to include training and protocol changes," Brierton said.
It's too early to consider disciplinary action, said Courtney Heidelberg, spokeswoman of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which includes the Highway Patrol. She noted the department asked for an outside investigation, which was ordered by Gov. Rick Scott. The Highway Patrol also is conducting a homicide investigation, which is expected to be completed in mid-May, Heidelberg said.
The report recommends the Highway Patrol clarify procedures in its policy manual and adopt mandatory protocols rather than merely suggesting guidelines. It also calls for the state to improve roadway warning signage.