The driver of the semi-truck that plowed through seven vehicles and killed six people in a wreck on Interstate 75 in June has been charged with six counts of vehicular homicide.
A Hamilton County grand jury on Monday also indicted Benjamin Brewer, 39, on four counts of reckless aggravated assault, driving under the influence of narcotics, speeding and making false reports about his duty status. Chattanooga police issued an order for Brewer's arrest on Monday.
Brewer, of London, Ky., was on duty for about 50 consecutive hours in the three days leading up to the June 25 crash, according to a preliminary report released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board. And he'd driven for 15 consecutive hours before crashing in Chattanooga, according to the report.
Brewer's trip began in London, Ky., on June 22. A new hire, Brewer planned to make his first run for Cool Runnings Express, looping from London, Ky., to Haines City, Fla., and back within a week. But the trip quickly went wrong.
When he picked up his load in Kentucky, Brewer had to stop to repair the truck's air compressor, according to the NTSB. The compressor was unable to properly operate the truck's brakes. After that repair, Brewer started the drive only to return to the repair shop because the truck wasn't performing well.
Shop employees fixed the engine's fuel delivery system, according to the NTSB, and then Brewer was finally on his way to Florida. Around 9:30 a.m. the next day on June 24, Brewer sideswiped a truck while attempting to pass and was issued a citation by the Florida Highway Patrol in Wildwood, Fla., about 70 miles north of his final destination, the NTSB report states.
Brewer then had to stop again to repair the damage from the crash, according to the NTSB. That repair took between three and four hours, and Brewer arrived in Haines City, Fla., that afternoon. He logged himself as off duty at 4:30 p.m. on June 24, records show.
At that point, Brewer had been on duty for about 50 consecutive hours, according to the NTSB report. Federal regulations require truck drivers to be on duty for a maximum of 14 consecutive hours. And of that 14-hour shift, drivers can be behind the wheel only for 11 hours before they must take a minimum 10-hour break, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
The extra nondriving hours are often spent loading and unloading, when the driver is working but not actually driving.
After arriving in Haines City, Brewer took a 12-hour break before leaving at 4:30 a.m. on June 25 and driving 15 hours up to Chattanooga — the final trip that ended in the fatal wreck. Tiffany Watts, 31, Sandra Anderson, 50, Brian Gallaher, 37, Jason Ramos, 36, and two children were killed. Brewer's truck, which hit seven vehicles in the crash, traveled 453 feet from the initial impact area to its final rest position, according to the NTSB report.
Other federal records show that Brewer falsified his driving records, claiming he was off duty on June 22, 23 and 24, even though his company's vehicle tracking system shows he was actually on duty and driving.
It's not uncommon for truck drivers to exceed the federal rules on how long they can be on the road, said Steve Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, an organization that helps set standards for roadside truck inspections.
Of 3.5 million roadside inspections performed in North America in 2014, five of the top 10 most frequently cited violations were related to hours of service, he said.
"We definitely do have a compliance issue," he said. He added that Brewer's violation was "excessive."
Brewer also tested positive for methamphetamine six weeks before the crash, lied on his application for employment and crashed his truck five times in the four years leading up to the fatal wreck on I-75, including the crash the day before, according to an order issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
The agency declared Brewer an imminent hazard to public safety on July 16 and ordered him to stop driving because of an "egregious, willful, dangerous pattern of conduct" that puts the public at "extreme risk of death or serious injury."
Billy Sizemore, owner of Cool Runnings Express in London, Ky., said he always aims to keep his drivers within the federal hours of service standards. One of the men injured in the crash sued Cool Runnings and Brewer for $10 million last week.
"[Brewer] was just a one-time-out driver," Sizemore said. "It's been bad news for us, but for the families who lost their loved ones, that's something — my wife and I, we just hated to hear something like that."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or email@example.com with tips or story ideas.