Drone footage shows the Dec. 5 wreckage at MM 21. MONROE COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE/Contributed

One week after a fiery crash killed a truck driver in a construction zone, where the sheriff said he had warned state transportation officials about a poorly lit and unsafe lane shift and construction barricade, those officials replied to the Keys Weekly’s request for comment.

“FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) is not currently aware of a call or recent notice of concern raised from any community partner, including the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, regarding the temporary concrete barrier wall or lighting through the work zone,” FDOT spokeswoman Cynthia Turcios wrote to the Keys Weekly on Dec. 12.

She expressed condolences to the deceased’s family and wrote that the department and its contractors had implemented traffic safety measures that comply with FDOT protocols.

“FDOT is lying to try to cover their ass,” Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay told the Keys Weekly on Dec. 12 upon learning of the department’s response. “A person is dead because of their lack of action and they’re going to try to make that driver the fall guy.”

What happened at mile marker 21?

In the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 5, Charles Dennis Shipley Jr., 61, was driving his United Natural Foods Inc. truck down U.S. 1 to make his usual deliveries to local food stores. At about 4:30 a.m. the truck hit a concrete construction barricade and exploded at MM 21 on Cudjoe Key.

Police said Shipley died instantly. The explosion caused a power outage from Big Pine Key to Key West and the Keys’ only road was closed for several hours.

The day of the accident, Ramsay told the Keys Weekly the deadly crash was “predicted and preventable.”

Ramsay said he had previously called the Florida Department of Transportation to report that the concrete construction barricade was poorly lit, the lane shift was insufficiently marked and the area did not have a reduced-speed zone. But the department took no action, Ramsay said.

The sheriff sent photos to the Keys Weekly the afternoon of the crash showing orange warning signs lying on the side of the road at the time of the accident rather than being installed prior to the lane shift. 

The Keys Weekly contacted FDOT officials the afternoon of the accident on Dec. 5 for comments about the sheriff’s warnings. Turcios replied via email on Dec. 12.

“The section of Overseas Highway in question, like much of the surrounding area, does not have streetlights and is currently posted at 45 mph, which is consistent with safety standards and protocols FDOT implements in work zones,” Turcios wrote. “Once construction began, the FDOT contractor began placing a temporary concrete barrier wall to establish a safe work zone. … In addition, the contractor installed advanced warning signs, reflective pavement markings and raised pavement markers. Drums were also placed to delineate the required lane shift. Traffic control devices and markings were placed in accordance with FDOT safety standards,” 

Turcios wrote, before adding that FDOT was not aware of any notice of concerns from the sheriff.

“FDOT is lying to try to cover their ass.”  – Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay

At the time of the crash, Ramsay said on Dec. 12, five large construction “drums” were in place, although there are now 12 marking the lane shift. 

“The only two signs warning of the lane shift were installed way too early on the roadway, and were blocked by foliage, which has since been cut back to make them more visible,” Ramsay said, sending photos of orange signs behind cut buttonwood limbs. “They got rid of the signs that were lying on the side of the road. They still haven’t installed any lighting, and they probably won’t, as that would be admitting fault.”

The Keys Weekly is requesting phone records and other potential documentation of the sheriff’s interactions with FDOT.

Victim was a family man & popular driver

Shipley, the truck driver who died, had lived in South Florida for about 10 years.

“He was a positive soul,” his nephew Jason Cook told the Keys Weekly on Dec. 6. “He loved his grandkids, country music. He loved his motorcycle. He loved to drive. He was always one of the fun uncles. He was talking about retiring in the next couple of years and buying an RV to travel,” Cook said. 

Shipley would have turned  62 on Dec. 26. He left his wife of 38 years, Katrina, a son and a daughter, grandchildren and a large extended family.

He also left a legion of dismayed customers on his delivery route, including Alton Weekley, co-owner of Fausto’s Food Palace, where Shipley had delivered twice a week for years.

“He had an amazing sense of customer service because he truly loved people,” Weekley said on Dec. 5. “We’re just at a loss. Everyone who knew him liked him.”

Mandy Miles
Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.