Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Public safety

Grisly task of identifying victims continues as authorities investigate deadly I-75 crash

Inside the pickup, buried in a tomb of charred and twisted metal, lay the remains of the 11th person killed in one of the deadliest crashes in Florida history.

For days, nobody knew it.

"They had to go layer by layer to pull back the metal and get to where the human remains were," said Larry Bedore of the medical examiner's office in Gainesville.

The magnitude of Sunday morning's mayhem on Interstate 75 grew more sobering with the news that it took nearly three days for a team of experts to determine that 11 people, not 10, were killed.

As the Florida Department of Law Enforcement begins an investigation, it appears clear that a combination of factors led to the crash: a lack of data on precise local conditions; the absence of roadside cameras that could have given a broader picture of the potential problems; and the location of the crash, a valley that likely compounded the effects of fog and smoke.

Also in question is the decision to reopen the highway after an earlier crash, though Florida Highway Patrol officials maintain they observed protocol.

The FDLE will review 911 calls, the policies and procedures of the Highway Patrol and Florida Department of Transportation and speak to first responders and law enforcement officials. As that work begins, another gruesome task awaits.

Medical examiners have yet to identify three of the bodies.

• • •

The smoke doesn't stop for long at the Paynes Prairie Preserve, located on a stretch of I-75 between mile markers 358 and 352.

On Saturday evening, a fire tore through 62 acres before it was contained. It took five hours to get it under control. On Tuesday, state forestry crews still were working to clear the area of hot spots.

Although forestry officials track smoke from such fires, they said the Florida Highway Patrol rarely consults with them on day-to-day smoke conditions and seldom issues public warnings.

It's still not known how the fires started.

"There are two things we know for sure," said Forest Service spokeswoman Ludi Bond. "It wasn't the result of a prescribed burn, and it was not caused by lightning."

They also know that smoke is not completely to blame for the pileup that became one of Florida's deadliest crashes.

Thick fog, worsened by the low-lying terrain of Paynes Prairie, made for a dense "soup" that moved in quickly and clung to the ground, National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Letro said.

"Boy, when smoke and fog get together, they create something that's much worse than the sum of its parts," he said.

The problem, Letro said, is the lack of a reliable mechanism to tell when fog might roll into the roadway.

Highway troopers don't typically consult with the National Weather Service on daily weather events, Letro said, and meteorologists typically offer their expertise only in high-impact weather events, such as hurricanes or prolonged forest fires.

Even if the Highway Patrol had consulted with forecasters, Letro said, it is unclear whether they would have kept the interstate closed.

"We don't know a lot about the fog that was out there," Letro said, noting the weather service monitors data from Gainesville and Ocala, but nowhere in between. Especially not remote stretches of highway.

"What happened is the kind of thing that can happen over a very, very small area," he said. "At that time, Gainesville and Ocala were reporting no obstruction to visibility whatsoever."

And so, on Sunday morning, Highway Patrol officials say they did what they always do:

Check the dew points, temperatures and humidity in the area; send troopers up and down the roadway to check visibility; and use weather data to estimate the potential for visibility obstruction on a scale of 1 to 10.

If the score is a 7 or higher the Highway Patrol closes the road.

Early Sunday, the score was a 6.

• • •

Thousands of miles of Florida interstate, including more than 140 miles throughout the Tampa Bay area, are equipped with surveillance cameras that monitor the roadways, feeding traffic information to roadside electronic marquee signs.

The area of Sunday's crash, which gets about 65,000 drivers a day, has no such system.

State transportation officials have planned to install them in the area, "but we just don't have them budgeted yet," spokeswoman Gina Busscher said earlier this week.

Could the cameras have prevented the tragedy? Even when drivers are aware of foggy or smoky conditions, they don't always grasp the seriousness or react properly.

But the cameras could have alerted the Highway Patrol monitoring the roadways of the looming danger, Busscher said.

As the questioning continued Wednesday, so did efforts to learn the identity of at least three victims.

Investigators and anthropologists at a secured site in Alachua County used toothbrushes to sift through the ash and debris of the charred pickup. They were looking for any clue, such as jewelry that didn't melt.

Times staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8452.

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