By Mandy Miles and Gwen Filosa

A fatal crash on U.S. 1 early Tuesday involving a semi-trailer truck shut down the highway for hours, as first responders attended to a fiery scene at mile marker 21 outside the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office substation on Cudjoe Key.

At about 4:30 a.m., the southbound UNFI (United Natural Foods, Inc.) truck hit an unlighted construction barricade at mile marker 21, Sheriff Rick Ramsay told the Keys Weekly on Tuesday afternoon.

The truck exploded on impact, killing the driver. He was Charles Dennis Shipley Jr., his family said. He was 61 and lived in Margate, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

“He was a positive soul,” his nephew Jason Cook told the Keys Weekly on Wednesday. “He loved his grandkids, country music. He loved his motorcycle. He loved to drive. He grew up boxing in high school. He was always one of the fun uncles to be around.”

Shipley was from Hyattsville, Maryland, and grew up in Baltimore. But he made South Florida his home about 10 years ago, having moved from his hometown of Glen Burnie, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. His two favorite NFL teams were the Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins, Cook said.

Shipley was in Maryland in November for a family visit.

“He was talking about retiring in the next couple of years and selling everything, buying an RV just to travel and see all the national parks and stuff like that,” Cook said.  

Shipley leaves his wife of 38 years, Katrina, a son and a daughter, grandchildren and a large extended family of nieces and nephews. 

Shipley’s mother had been in South Florida for a visit days before the fatal crash.

“He had just dropped my grandmother off at the airport,” Cook said Wednesday. “She got a last text message at 3:43 a.m., saying how happy he was for her to be down there making memories and decorating for the holidays and he hopes she has a safe holiday. That was 3:43 a.m. yesterday morning before he got on the road.”

Shipley had a birthday coming soon, on Dec. 26.

Sheriff: crash was ‘predicted and preventable’

The Florida Highway Patrol, which is leading the crash investigation, hasn’t determined an exact cause of the truck crash.

“For an unknown reason at this time the vehicle struck the edge of a concrete barrier with its front causing it to jackknife and roll the cab over onto its right side,” according to the report released the day after the crash.

“The vehicle caught fire multiple times,” and Shipley died at the scene, the report said. The truck came to a stop blocking both the northbound and southbound lanes.

“Surrounding foliage caught fire as well and damaged a home and personal property,” FHP said.

However, Sheriff Ramsay predicted such a fatality more than a month ago, when he warned Florida Department of Transportation officials about the unlit, unmarked lane shift in the exact spot as Tuesday’s disaster.

The road work being done by FDOT and its contractors, involves the replacement of underground communication lines for AT&T, the sheriff said.

“I complained to FDOT,” Ramsay said. “I said, someone is going to get hurt or killed, and now who’s going to be held accountable for this deadly accident that was predicted and preventable?”

Monroe County firefighters responded to a fatal semi-trailer truck crash on Dec. 4, 2023. MONROE COUNTY FIRE RESCUE/contributed

“Who monitors these work sites to ensure the traffic management plan that must be approved ahead of time is actually being followed?” Ramsay said. “On top of all that, once the crews installed the new barrier and shifted the lane with no warnings, lights or signage, they walked away and have done no work in the area for a month or so,” Ramsay added. “It makes you wonder why they’re doing a major traffic shift with no one working at the site during our heavy traffic season?”

Ramsay said, “Now this morning, a man loses his life in a horrible crash, the road is shut down for hours, the power is out and the whole county is impacted. But FDOT doesn’t seem to care. They seem indifferent.”

The Keys Weekly has asked for comment from FDOT officials.

Traffic brought to a halt

Multiple agencies responded to the crash scene, including FDOT, although initially, in the early morning, some FDOT employees who are based in Marathon were unable to access the area due to the roadblock, county spokeswoman Kristen Livengood said.

At the nightmarish crash scene, Sheriff’s Office deputies handled traffic, which hit a standstill for hours as investigators worked the scene. Meanwhile, more than 27,000 homes and businesses were without power for about one hour after the crash, Keys Energy reported.

The crash was an enormous explosion on the highway that, alone with smoke, knocked the Keys transmission line offline.

Northbound traffic from Key West later in the morning was eventually rerouted on the old state highway to get past Cudjoe Key.

Anything larger than a pickup truck, however, was stuck on U.S. 1, because the old road is too narrow for larger vehicles to use. A typical 45-minute trip to Marathon took about 2 hours for many drivers who were able to use the old state highway pathway northbound.

Large trucks lined the southbound lane for miles throughout the morning.

The county’s Lower Keys roads and bridges crew worked to help clean the road of debris, as Keys agencies did whatever needed to be done in response to the tragedy.

“We’re all in this together,” Livengood said.

The road was completely reopened at 12:58 p.m., FHP reported.

Sheriff warned state officials of road dangers

“A couple months ago, I was on the radio talking about the FDOT’s improper signage for construction in that area and the unsafe lighting that didn’t light up the concrete barrier they had installed,” Ramsay said.

Ramsay added that he had also called FDOT officials in Miami with the same warnings.

“They never put up proper signage warning of the lane shift,” the sheriff said. “They never installed proper lighting, and they didn’t implement a reduced-speed zone that is typical in construction areas.”

Ramsay said there is proof FDOT didn’t properly install warning signs.

The orange roadside signs that should have been installed a half mile or so before the work site to warn of the impending traffic shift were seen piled on the side of road “200 to 300 feet before the scene of the fatal accident,” Ramsay said.