Road conditions quickly got worse

Officials say they never expected visibility to be reduced to zero.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD, Times Staff Writer
Published January 10, 2008

TAMPA -- Highway officials knew Tuesday evening that smoke from a swamp fire near Interstate 4 could pose a hazard, so crews took the usual step of posting bright orange signs warning motorists: "FOG/SMOKE."

In the predawn hours, state troopers drove the road and saw nothing amiss. Then, about 4:30 a.m., 911 calls started pouring in. Scores of vehicles were slamming into each other in a thick blanket of smoke and fog.

Officials said Wednesday they aren't sure they could have done anything more to prevent the 70-vehicle pileup on I-4. They never expected visibility on the road to be reduced to zero.

"The conditions weren't that bad" as officers patrolled I-4 on the midnight shift, said Maj. Tom Knight of the Florida Highway Patrol. "We never received any indication from the troopers that it was unsafe."

If they had known, they almost certainly would have closed the road, even though shutting down Central Florida's main east-west artery has a significant effect on commuters and commerce -- a fact that became painfully evident Wednesday.

The highway is a vital link between the Tampa Bay area and Orlando. Nearly 125,000 vehicles drive I-4 daily on the stretch near Interstate 75, dwindling to about 75,000 in the area where Wednesday's crashes occurred. Other east-west roads leading into Florida's interior can't handle that much traffic.

The highway also is a major truck route, so a lengthy closure will cause delays for the shipping industry.

"There are literally hundreds of trucks an hour in both directions on I-4 all day long," said Matt Ubben, spokesman for the Florida Trucking Association. "You name it, anything that's on a shelf and being sold as a product is on I-4 going between Orlando and Tampa."

Some of the 20 semis that were entangled in Wednesday's crash belonged to Kanes Furniture, Beall's and Sysco West Coast Florida. The companies said their drivers weren't seriously injured.

The Highway Patrol says it doesn't worry about commerce if safety is an issue. Several times in the last decade, it has blocked off I-75 and I-95 when huge brush fires menaced swaths of Florida.

But officials say they didn't think this situation was that serious.

Forestry officials notified highway officials about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday that smoke from a 400-acre wildfire near I-4 could be a hazard.

Workers with the state Department of Transportation posted fog signs after checking out the road conditions, said DOT spokeswoman Cindy Klemons-Adente. "We put a couple of those out last night," she said Wednesday.

No one saw a need to take more drastic steps.

Knight, of the FHP, said officers were monitoring the road. He said a trooper had been driving on I-4 in that area as recently as 3:15 a.m.

"We had deputies patrolling that interstate on the midnight shift, and they were freely and openly patrolling that interstate," Knight said.

The state has been installing electronic overhead signs along I-4 and I-275 in the Tampa Bay area to warn motorists of traffic backups and accidents ahead. The ones in Polk County are under construction and aren't operating yet.

"It'll be another year before they're all hooked up and ready to go," said Terry Hensley, a DOT traffic incident manager. "With this situation today, a year from now we would have been able to put up messages on signs all the way out to U.S. 27," near where the accidents happened.

That still wouldn't have prevented Wednesday's disaster. It wasn't until after the pileup that a notice was posted on the functioning electronic signs, warning drivers that I-4 was closed.

Staff writers Casey Cora and S.I. Rosenbaum contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.

I-4 detour options

Tampa Bay area drivers who absolutely need to head east today should take stock of their options. First, check traffic.tampabay.com for up-to-the-minute updates on whether I-4 is open in Polk County. If not, here are some alternate routes: