Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Listen: 911 tapes reveal frantic search for wrong-way I-275 driver

TAMPA — The emergency dispatchers were helpless as the white Ford Expedition barrelled down Interstate 275 southbound on the wrong side of the highway. Dispatchers tried tracking the vehicle using cameras, perhaps sensing an unfolding tragedy.

"It's hard to look at," a Florida Highway Patrol dispatcher told a counterpart at Tampa police just after 2 a.m. Sunday. "I don't want to look at it. But there's so much traffic. I don't know how he got around them."

He wouldn't much longer. Five men had just minutes to live.

FHP released Wednesday the recordings of 911 calls and dispatch communications that capture the moments leading up to a fiery collision on I-275 early Sunday that killed the SUV's driver and four University of South Florida fraternity brothers. The tapes reveal dispatchers frantically trying to track the vehicle using the cameras to direct FHP and Tampa police units.

FHP investigators are trying to understand why or how the SUV's driver, Daniel Lee Morris, 28, of Tampa got behind the wheel of a friend's vehicle and sped down I-275. A friend of the SUV's owner said Morris may have attended a party in the hours before the crash.

Bryan Kelly, 28, of Ruskin had been invited to a party at Scott E. Enfinger's home in Tampa that night to celebrate Enfinger's wife's birthday. Enfinger is the owner of the Expedition, FHP says. Kelly had car trouble and couldn't make it. But he said Enfinger later filled him in on what occurred that night.

Kelly said Morris took Enfinger's SUV. Enfinger ran after him on foot for a few blocks before giving up the chase, Kelly said.

No one that he has talked to knows why Morris took the car, Kelly said. He doesn't know if Morris was drunk, or upset about something.

"There's got to be more to it, something someone is missing somewhere," Kelly said. Kelly, Morris and Enfinger had known each other since they were all teens, he said. "It's completely uncharacteristic of Daniel."

Kelly hadn't seen or talked to Morris since he moved back to Tampa recently after about a year and a half in Michigan. Morris was due Monday to start a job at Port Manatee, where he had worked previously.

Kelly wasn't sure if Morris was at the party or if he took the Expedition afterward.

It was shortly after 2 a.m. when emergency dispatchers began receiving 911 calls from startled drivers who reported the SUV. A woman headed northbound on I-275 later reported Morris driving about seven miles north of Busch Boulevard.

"We just passed mile marker 57 … and there is a vehicle careening southbound in the northbound lane," she said.

"We'll send somebody out there," a dispatcher told her.

But directing troopers and Tampa police to the vehicle using highway cameras proved to be a complicated task. The SUV, FHP says, may have been traveling in excess of 70 mph, rapidly passing cameras and outpacing witnesses calling 911.

Dispatchers were taking calls from units in the field while monitoring a bank of cameras used by the Department of Transportation to monitor traffic, trying to pan the cameras or zoom in on traffic, said FHP spokesman Steve Gaskins.

"It's not easy," Gaskins said. "You have to pan the cameras around and find the car. It's a little bit of a jigsaw puzzle."

The live feed is not recorded by DOT.

Gaskins said officers most likely would have been powerless to stop the crash even if they had caught up to the SUV, as troopers and police never would have chased a vehicle on the wrong side of the interstate. Closing the highway and directing traffic away from the speeding SUV could not have been done quickly enough, he said.

He also said it is unclear how much FHP dispatchers had their eyes on the vehicle.

"You have anybody headed out to the area?" an FHP dispatcher asked Tampa police. "I hope he doesn't hit nobody. . . . He's in the fast lane passing Fletcher right now. … He's in the middle of the road now. What is he doing?"

The dispatcher often paused to take information from others.

"He's going to hit somebody," the FHP dispatcher said. "There's a lot of traffic coming. … It looks like a white SUV. . . . They're approaching Fowler right now. He's speeding up now and he's going really fast."

At one point, the FHP dispatcher asked Tampa police plaintively, "You guys have anyone close?"

But Tampa police did not.

"I lost visual," the FHP dispatcher said. "He's too far ahead now."

Within moments, the SUV crashed into the Hyundai Sonata carrying the fraternity brothers. The collision killed Dammie Yesudhas, 21, Jobin Kuriakose, 21, Imtiyaz Jim Ilias, 20, and Ankeet Patel, 22.

Before that was evident, a Tampa police dispatcher told FHP, "Go check over near Busch because it looks like he might have crashed out there. We just got a call from somebody who says a white Ford . . . versus a Hyundai crashed at 275 and Busch and there's a vehicle fire."

"Yeah, I see the smoke," the FHP dispatcher answered, sighing. "We just couldn't catch up to him in time. That sucks."

"It's pretty bad," the Tampa dispatcher said. "Yeah, it's bad."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Claire Wiseman contributed to this report.

   
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