USA — A year ago today, a blanket of fog and smoke enveloped Interstate 4 near Auburndale with deadly effects: A fiery 70-car pileup left four dead, one mortally injured and 37 hurt.
And on this first anniversary of the tragedy, many questions remain, and planned highway improvements are still months away.
In the dark, fog-shrouded hours that morning, commuters and truck drivers began crashing into each other along a 2-mile stretch of I-4 between State Road 559 and County Road 557.
In all, there were 10 separate crashes, and it was one of the worst accident scenes in Polk County’s history.
Darren Snyder, 35, of Auburndale; Joseph Noel, 57, and Adrian Moran-Gomez, 21, both of Lakeland; and Jorge Fundora, 51, and Michael Fricke, 34, both of Tampa, died in the accidents, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Many people said smoke from a nearby brush fire mixed with the heavy fog to create near-zero visibility that led to the series of crashes.
While little has visibly changed in the past year along the route, there are improvements happening on the stretch of road.
The Florida Department of Transportation is in the process of installing 10 electronic signs through Polk’s I-4 corridor. They will display messages to alert drivers to traffic conditions; accidents; and other information, such as Silver Alerts and Amber Alerts, officials said.
But the $11 million sign project, which was planned well in advance of the Jan. 9, 2008, pileup, won’t be fully operational until the summer, said John McShaffrey, a DOT spokesman. “They are still working out the details. It takes a while for everything to be installed.”
The first sign was erected earlier this week near mile marker 48, in the westbound lane east of County Road 557, he said.
“Unfortunately, these signs won’t be operational for this current fog season,” McShaffrey said.
The system will also include a series of 22 cameras, which can be rotated, and 77 vehicle-detection systems, which will observe the amount of traffic and speed of the vehicles, he said. “We’re hoping to get all of these installed by January.”
While the final police reports from the accident have yet to be released, they are expected any day, officials said.
Troopers recently completed their investigation of the crash, and the reports are being reviewed by the 10th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office for possible criminal charges, said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, FHP spokesman.
Several people have been cited in the crash for noncriminal driving violations.
A preliminary report, released shortly after the incident by FHP, broke the pileup down into the numerous crashes that occurred, including a fiery 25-vehicle tangle that left four dead.
In the report on the 25-vehicle crash, troopers noted fog and smoke signs were posted on the interstate to warn drivers.
The FHP report said drivers were at fault in many of the individual crashes that contributed to the pileups because of high speed and careless driving.
The report didn’t mention the controlled burn.
“Just because the speed limit is posted at a certain level on a roadway does not relieve a driver of exercising caution,” Gaskins said of the pileup.
“Drivers are reminded that they must reduce their speed or take other necessary precautions to avoid crashes.”
The day before the wrecks, Jan. 8, 2008, a controlled burn by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission off County Road 557 got out of hand, burning nearly 250 acres of a wildlife management area just north of the I-4 crash zone.
Division of Forestry firefighters were called to get the fire under control.
During the night, fog rolled in, and many people at the crash site said the smoke was thick during the crashes.
One Polk County deputy, Carlton Turner, was involved in the early morning crashes. At 4:54 a.m., Turner got a call about an accident in the eastbound lane of I-4, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
He drove into a “wall of smoke and fog,” Sheriff Grady Judd said, and his car was struck three times by others before he got it off the roadway.