FHP Combs for Clues in Deadly I-95 Wreck

By: J.D. Gallop – Florida Today – January 7, 2011 Authorities investigating a fiery Interstate 95 crash that left two people dead are focused on whether a semi-tractor trailer driver failed to reduce speed in a construction zone as motorists slowed down near a closed exit ramp. Seven people were involved in the 9:50 p.m. crash Wednesday on southbound Interstate 95 at the coned-off exit to Malabar Road in Palm Bay. Precautions, including 1.4 miles of traffic cones and three signs on the interstate, warned motorists that the exit — the last in southern Brevard before a 17-mile stretch to Indian River County — was closed as construction workers put in a new overhead sign. But investigators were still trying to determine whether one or more of the Palm Bay motorists had gotten onto the highway from Palm Bay Road about two miles north of Malabar Road, and whether there was ample warning coming from that route. “There is a possibility that all three vehicles, not the semi- tractor trailer, were slowing down because they resided in Palm Bay and wanted to exit,” said Kim Montes, spokeswoman for the Florida Highway Patrol. “We don’t know if they got on at Palm Bay Road. We’re still trying to piece everything together.” The two people killed were identified as Todd Olthoff and Marcy Olthoff both 48-year-olds from Palm Bay. They were traveling in a 2001 Infiniti. A pet dog also was killed. Two other Palm Bay residents in a Saturn, identified as 72-year-old driver Sandra Keen and passenger Philip Keen, 74, were seriously injured. Both were flown to Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne, where they were in good condition late Thursday. Two others, including a construction worker struck while fleeing the crash and a Palm Bay motorist driving a Ford pickup, were taken by ambulance to Palm Bay Community Hospital for treatment. “The full responsibility of the crash falls on the semi-tractor driver. We’re looking at everything involved, but any time you have a change in road conditions, whether it’s a pre-planned closure or something sudden, drivers need to be paying attention,” Montes said. “If we had multiple crashes out there, then we’d look into it, but there’s not an issue with the road at this point, just inattentive drivers.” The police said the tractor-trailer’s driver, Eduardo Avila, 38, of Miami Lakes, was not seriously hurt. Florida Highway Patrol investigators ordered a blood sample but did not file charges. Investigators said Avila has a record of traffic violations, including previous charges of careless driving, driving with a suspended license and failure to pay a toll. Officials also said Avila’s license had been suspended in 2006 and 2007 but was valid at the time of the crash. Investigators will have his semi-tractor trailer inspected and conduct eyewitness interviews. “There was no braking until the impact,” Cpl. Jim Nusl, the Florida Highway Patrol’s lead investigator for the wreck, said of the tractor-trailer. “But after he struck the small car (the Infiniti), he lost the front brakes and some of the rear air brakes, so it continued until they became stationary on the overpass.” Investigators said all of the vehicles were southbound on the interstate and in the center lane. Investigators said the driver of the Ford pickup, identified as Filbert Delva, 35, of Palm Bay, may have been slowing to attempt a late exit onto Malabar Road, which was blocked off. It was then that the tractor-trailer slammed into the 2001 Infiniti, pinning the car under its undercarriage before striking the Saturn and pickup, officials reported. Warnings The Florida Department of Transportation has two mobile signs on Palm Bay Road — a major commercial strip that connects commuters to the interstate — but it was not immediately known whether they were used to alert motorists wanting to head south about the Malabar Road exit being closed. “We’re trying to find out if they were in operation,” said Steve Olson, spokesman for the Department of Transportation. “We do review crash data. We don’t lose sight of the fact that with each crash, there’s a human being involved.” He added that the state agency will meet with contractors soon to evaluate current traffic plans for the project refurbishing and widening along the 4.2 miles between Malabar Road to Palm Bay Road. Crash statistics for that section of highway were not immediately available, but it was the third accident in the construction zone in one day. Still, investigators say drivers should be attentive at all times. The $20 million project could be completed by mid-February, officials said. Florida Highway Patrol troopers and other off-duty officers hired to monitor traffic during lane closures have reported that residents have tried to use exits or drive through traffic cones despite closures. Susan Redmann and her husband were returning home from dinner in Viera about an hour before the crash when they came upon the cones at the closed-off exit. “Sometimes you get right up to the cones and then there’s a break,” said the resident of Bayside Lakes in southern Palm Bay. “My husband kept looking and said, ‘I don’t know where to get off.’ We made the split-second decision and skirted right through, and that’s when the state patrol officer stopped us.” Redmann said there should be more signs that clearly say if and when the Malabar Road exit will be closed. One warning sign on the interstate did say “State Road 514” would be closed, but FDOT officials said they are now considered using the words “Malabar Road” instead. “That’s something we’re looking into,” Olson said. Witness Palm Bay resident Heather Kemmerer said she witnessed the horrific crash as she stood talking with friends at Palmside Apartments, a complex near the interstate. “We were just standing around smoking and, honestly, the interstate is the only thing to look at. We saw the construction crew running and heard the scraping metal. You could see the driver’s side of the semi pop up. It was very gruesome,” the 24-year-old said. Moments before, Kemmerer said she had pulled off the interstate after having to drive all the way to Indian River County and back to get off at Malabar Road. Officials acknowledge that a number of residents use the Palm Bay Road exit to get to Malabar Road. “I understand that the construction goes on at night, and yes, they should have another exit there,” Kimmerer said. “They do post the signs well enough to let people know that an exit’s going to be closed, but that’s the third time that I missed the exit myself and had to drive all the way to Indian River County.” Staff writer Andrew Knapp contributed to this report. Contact Gallop at 321-409-1422 or jdgallop@floridatoday.com.

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