Troopers identify five killed in fiery wreck on I-95

Published on Wednesday, November 13, 2002
in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel



PEMBROKE PARK - Troopers Wednesday morning identified the taxi driver and four Midwest tourists who were killed when their cab collided with a gasoline tanker truck and an 18-wheeler flatbed on Interstate 95 a day earlier.

The cab driver was identified as Jean Carlos Gernier, 36, of Miami. The passengers killed in his cab were Bryant Pendleton, 42; wife Angela Pendelton, 41; John Madison, 49; and wife Francis Madison, 48, all of St. Louis, Mo.

The Florida Highway Patrol said the four tourists had been picked up at the Port of Miami after vacationing together on a Norwegian Cruise Lines cruise. They were on their way to the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport to catch a flight home when the crash occurred around 11 a.m. in the northbound lanes of I-95 at Hallandale Beach Boulevard.

An FHP report alleges the taxicab switched lanes and drove into the path of a flatbed trailer rig driven by Jose Ramos, 40, of Miami. The two vehicles collided and both began sliding. A third vehicle -- a gas tanker driven by Osvaldo Valdez, 54, of Miami -- hit the brakes and tried to steer left to avoid a collision. Then the cab and the gas tanker slid into the median and hit the concrete barrier wall. Both vehicles bounced back on the highway where the flatbed rig had already jack-knifed. At that point the flatbed ended up on top of the cab. That's when fire broke out. The two truck drivers escaped the blaze without injury. But the cab driver and his fares were trapped inside the burning cab. They died there.

FHP Lt. John Bagnardi said Wednesday that FHP investigators were still trying to determined the cause of the accident.

In all, 33 fire units from Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, Broward County and Miami-Dade responded to the fire.

Two southbound lanes of I-95 reopened two hours after the crash. Several northbound lanes remained closed into Tuesday night.

However, the inside northbound lane in that area remained closed until Wednesday when the roadway, destroyed by fuel and fire, was scheduled to be repaved.

Earlier story follows

PEMBROKE PARK -- Five people died Tuesday morning, trapped inside a taxicab engulfed by flames after colliding with a gasoline tanker truck and an 18-wheeler flatbed on Interstate 95.

Police said the taxi driver appeared to have caused the accident that ended with one of the trucks on top of the taxi and created the three-vehicle fireball. The wreck snarled traffic for miles in both directions from about 11 a.m. until well after dark.

The accident happened in the northbound lanes just south of Pembroke Road.

The victims were a male Yellow Cab driver from Miami and two couples, all in their 40s, from St. Louis, Mo. The couples apparently had traveled together on a cruise that ended in Miami and were most likely headed to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, FHP spokesman Lt. John Bagnardi said.

The drivers of both trucks escaped uninjured, but flames destroyed both their cabs. Neither truck was carrying fuel or other cargo.

"There were flames coming out of the tractor-trailer, and you could barely see the car underneath it," said Hollywood Fire Capt. Don Anderson, whose department arrived first on the scene and began fighting the fire with foam. "We went for the quick attack, because we didn't know if the tanker was full of fuel."

By early evening, FHP had identified all the victims from documents found on their bodies or in the taxi and were searching for next of kin, Bagnardi said. He declined to name them.

A Yellow Cab supervisor in Miami confirmed that the driver was an employee but said she did not know his name. The company employs more than 1,000 drivers.

"It was coming out of the Port of Miami, so it had to be one of ours coming out of here," supervisor Cassandra Lopez said. "Everybody has been very cautious and everybody very worried to see who it was, to see if it was one of their family or friends. I've had people from Fort Lauderdale calling me."

The driver of the tanker truck was identified as Osvaldo Valdez, 54, of Victory Trucking in Miami. The driver of the flatbed truck was Jose Ramos, 40, of Midnight Trucking in Hialeah. A woman who identified herself as a Victory vice president declined to comment. Midnight officials could not be reached.

Both truck drivers said the taxi caused the accident by cutting off the flatbed as all three vehicles were northbound on I-95 between Hallandale Beach Boulevard and Pembroke Road.

"On the surface of it, it doesn't look like the trucks were at fault," Bagnardi said.

Both truck drivers were properly licensed to drive the trucks, he added.

The truckers remained on the scene for several hours after the accident but would speak only briefly to reporters. Valdez said that Ramos' flatbed was in front of his truck and was cut off by the taxi.

"The taxi was coming right and got in the other trucker's way," Valdez said. "He tried to go to the left, and I tried to go to the left."

Ramos confirmed that his truck was between the taxi and the other truck.

"I can't say anything," he said. "I'm only telling the police because I have the right to be silent."

Bagnardi said the tanker was in the left lane, the flatbed truck was in a center lane, and the taxi was in a right-hand lane.

Suddenly, the taxi swerved left and was rear-ended by the flatbed, which couldn't slow in time. The car then spun to the left in front of the tanker. Both the tanker and the taxi slammed into the median wall, with the tanker plowing the taxi forward, Bagnardi said.

The flatbed truck, which had jack-knifed, then veered left and landed on top of the car, trapping the five people inside.

The impact caused an explosion followed by a fireball. More than 33 fire-rescue vehicles and 50 rescue workers from four departments responded to the scene.

David Guernsey, a rookie Hollywood firefighter, said by the time they arrived it was clear that the people trapped in the car had perished.

"Our captain instructed us to go straight for the fire attack," Guernsey said. "There was both foam and water going for several minutes, and then Broward County and Metro Dade helped us out."

The accident played havoc with traffic in both directions of the interstate and along feeder roads. At various times, southbound traffic was closed off from Interstate 595 to Pembroke Road, causing backups as far north as Broward Boulevard.

Northbound traffic was closed from Ives Dairy Road in Miami-Dade County to I-595, with backups as far as the Golden Glades interchange.

Some drivers used the highway's shoulder to reach the nearest exit. Several cars overheated and had to be towed.

Linda Rogers, who exited at Hollywood Boulevard, said a trip from Griffin Road to the Hollywood Boulevard exit, which would usually take four minutes, took her almost a half-hour.

Rubbernecking aggravated the backup as drivers slowed to stare at the charred wreckage.

Quanwanis Heath said one of the tractors drove past her, and then she saw flames.

"At first, I thought it was a plane that went down. It was so hot and the flames were so high," said Heath, who was on her way to work.

Traffic immediately came to a halt, said Heath, who walked back to the accident after she got off the highway to speak to rescuers.

"I can still smell it. It really shook me up," Heath said. "I grieve for the families because I knew they didn't have a chance."

The explosion prompted officials at a school near I-95 to evacuate temporarily.

"I heard a bang and then soon after heard an explosion and then saw a humongous ball of fire and smoke," said Valerie Wanza, principal of South Area Alternative Center at 1050 NW Seventh Court in Hallandale Beach. "It was huge, and what scared me was that we weren't sure what was in the tanker."

Bagnardi said the victims were burned so badly that it may be necessary to use a DNA test or dental records to confirm their identities.