Report: Florida troopers made mistakes before fatal crashes

Crashes on Interstate 75 in Alachua County, Florida, on January 29 and 30 killed 11 people. Smoke from a brush fire cut visibility.

Story highlights

  • A January crash on Interstate 75 in Florida left 11 people dead
  • A state report found state troopers made mistakes before the crashes
  • It says trooper who ordered interstate reopened was not formally trained to do so
  • Trooper said he reopened the interstate highway because he felt it dangerous not to
A Florida highway patrolman who ordered the opening of an interstate highway, despite dense fog and smoke from a nearby brush fire, had not received any formal training on opening or closing roads and was not aware of the agency's relevant policy or procedures, according to an investigation into the deadly January crashes that left 11 people dead.
Lt. John Gourley ordered the road reopened when conditions improved on Interstate 75 because he considered it dangerous not to, he told investigators, according to a state report released Thursday. Gourley cited the potential for secondary crashes as a result of prolonged road closures based on his prior experience as a reason for the decision.
Despite reservations expressed by Sgt. Bruce Simmons, who said he was worried about allowing traffic to resume too soon, Gourley proceeded with the reopening.
"I'm concerned that another cloud might roll through and then we got to go through all this again," said Simmons, according to the report.
"That's why we need to go ahead get DOT (the Florida Department of Transportation) to get signs and assets in place if we need to shut down where we did, we can do it," Gourley responded. "Keep monitoring it but right at this point, I see no reason to keep it closed."
The report said troopers did not act with criminal intent but also "failed to adequately communicate critical information amongst themselves regarding the fire on Paynes Prairie."
Gourley was not immediately available for comment.
The report also blamed the agency for failing "to adequately create and implement effective guidelines" for its troopers to follow when dealing with poor visibility on roadways. And those training measures in place were considered "ineffective and poorly memorialized," it said.
After Gourley reopened the highway, there were not adequate resources dedicated to monitor subsequent road conditions, the report found.
About 20 minutes before the fatal crashes, Trooper Steven Downing reported seeing dense smoke less than a mile east of Interstate 75, where the vehicle accidents would occur. But "no immediate measures were taken" to monitor the conditions in that area following his report, it added.
Downing later responded to a nearby crash that involved six vehicles, which occurred near Gainesville.
The National Weather Service had warned that patchy smoke and fog may have been present in the area.
Lidiane Carmo, 15, was injured and lost most of her family in the I-75 pileup.
The teen's case drew widespread attention after church members said she was an illegal immigrant from Brazil, and they were afraid she could face deportation. But federal officials said in February that she would be allowed to stay in the country.