If we’ve learned anything over the past few heart-wrenching days it’s this: Interstate 75 is an extremely dangerous roadway that forces motorists to put their lives on the line when they travel on the fast-moving, traffic-laden freeway.
By now, we’re sure everyone is aware of the tragic, fiery crash on I-75 Thursday near Gainesville that killed five children and two semi-truck drivers. All told, five vehicles were involved the melee and 15 of the 16 people in the crash either died or suffered serious or critical injuries.
The Florida Highway Patrol is still investigating the incident. But we may never know why a northbound semi driven by 59-year-old Steve Holland, of West Palm Beach, suddenly veered into a Honda sedan driven by 41-year-old Robyn Rattray, of Gainesville, and started one of the worst crashes in I-75’s history.
Perhaps Holland suffered a medical condition. Maybe he was sleepy. Or maybe he just lost control of his massive big rig. Whatever the reason, what happened next is almost beyond comprehension.
That’s because Holland’s semi and Rattray’s sedan crashed through the center median and slammed into a Disney World-bound church van from Louisiana carrying three adults and nine children, as well as another semi-truck driven by 49-year-old Douglas Bolkema, of Albuquerque, N.M. The van, driven by 45-year-old Amy Joffrion from the Avoyelles House of Mercy church in Marksville, La., overturned multiple times, ejecting several passengers.
The two semis and Rattray’s car burst into flames. And a pickup driven by 61-year-old Mark Houghtaling, of Gainesville, rolled through the accident scene and struck at least one of the van’s occupants, a Florida Highway Patrol report states.
Holland and Bokema were killed in the crash, as were five children from the Louisiana church. They were identified late Friday afternoon as 14-year-old Joel Cloud, 14-year-old Jeremiah Warren, 9-year-old Cierra Bordelan, 13-year-old Cara Descant and 10-year-old Brieana Descant.
The eight people injured in the incident were identified as Rattray, of Gainesville; Joffrion, of Mansura, La.; 30-year-old Ali Laborde, of Marksville, La.; 50-year-old Karen Descant, of Marksville, La.; 14-year-old Noah Joffrion, of Mansura, La.; 11-year-old Chelsea Laborde, of Marksville, La.; 9-year-old Trinity Woodward, of Hessmer, La.; and 9-year-old Chance Bernard, of Hessmer, La.
The lives of those families will never be the same. Frankly, we can’t even begin to comprehend what they are going through and how they’ll deal with it moving forward. But our thoughts and prayers are certainly with them as they attempt to heal and recover from this terrible tragedy.
But this crash also begs the question – what can be done about the highly dangerous freeway that seems like a magnet for terrible crashes. Because as many Floridians know, this isn’t the first time a crash has happened on I-75. Others include:
- Oct. 30, 2018: Portions of the interstate were closed after a dump truck’s bed broke off and got lodged at an overpass.
- Sept. 18, 2018: A three-vehicle crash snarled traffic near Mile Marker 344.
- Aug. 31, 2018: A semi crash at the Wildwood exit at State Road 44 snarled traffic for hours. Up the road in Alachua County, another crash involving a semi and a passenger vehicle brought traffic to a grinding halt.
- Aug. 27, 2018: The driver of a semi was rescued from the Withlacoochee River after the cab of his truck ended up in the water.
- Aug. 13, 2018: Two Ocala women were killed in a crash at Mike Marker 349.
- May 6, 2018: A Bushnell couple escaped serious injury when they were involved in a crash with a semi and another vehicle at Mike Marker 407.
- Feb. 9, 2018: A group of Texans were seriously injured in a rollover crash at Mile Marker 352 after a front tire blew out on their vehicle.
- Feb. 7, 2018: A 94-year-old Ocala man was killed in a crash with a semi-truck at Mile Marker 358.
- Oct. 9, 2017: A Summerfield man was injured in a crash at Mike Marker 329 after he was pinched between two vehicles.
- June 17, 2017: FHP Trooper William T. Bishop was killed while working an accident at Mile Marker 403 in Alachua County.
- March 19, 2017: Four people were killed and a three-year-old child was critically injured when a vehicle struck a disabled semi in Alachua County.
- May 3, 2014: Properties of The Villages sales agent George Phillips, FHP Trooper Chelsea Richard and tow truck driver John Duggan were killed at an accident scene in Marion County when they were struck by a pickup truck.
- Jan. 28, 2012: Ten people were killed and 18 injured when heavy smog and smoke from a brush fire covered both sides of the interstate just south of Gainesville.
Obviously, these crashes are just the tip of the iceberg. But they are the kind of incidences that led to the creation of the I-75 Relief Task Force in 2015 – a group former Marion County Commissioner and current State Rep. Stan McClain served on. The following year, the group, charged with improving traffic flow and safety on I-75, recommended:
- Transforming the interstate from Hernando to Columbia counties by expanding its capacity and improving its safety, efficiency, and reliability through enhancements such as express lanes and truck-only lanes.
- Improving the capacity of U.S. 301 from Hernando to Duval counties and U.S. 41 from Hernando to Columbia counties.
- Expanding freight rail capacity and connectivity.
- Providing more choices for long-distance travel by residents and visitors, including enhancing intercity bus services and creating passenger rail services.
Finding areas of opportunity for new multimodal, multiuse corridors to relieve the interstate and connect Tampa Bay and Northeast Florida.
While some of those suggestions could prove to helpful, I-75 is still an extremely dangerous roadway – much more so than when the task force was assembled. And while we’re not traffic engineers – nor do we pretend to be – we do know that some solutions to make I-75 safer must be found very quickly. And if that means spending wads of money to create specialty traffic lanes for passenger vehicles or semis, then so be it.
At the very least, we’d like to see two things happen:
A concerted, long-term effort by the FHP to slow down interstate traffic considerably. Anyone who has driven I-75 knows that you will get run over if you drive the speed limit on the busy roadway.
Much stronger barriers used to divide the northbound and southbound lanes. The five children and the semi driver who was traveling southbound didn’t stand a chance when the other semi and sedan came crashing through the center median. And while we’re not suggesting those vehicles could have been stopped with a stronger barrier, we’re also not saying they couldn’t have been, either.
As we said earlier, our hearts go out to all of the victims of Thursday’s crash and their families. We would encourage everyone to pray for them and to please keep them in your thoughts. And we’ll certainly hope that this horrific crash will serve as a wakeup call for the Florida Department of Transportation to finally do something about one of the most dangerous roads in the Sunshine State.