In the seconds before his garbage truck plowed through a concrete highway barrier and plunged 75 feet down into a popular Little Havana park, Kaseem Smith was driving leisurely over the Miami River.
He wasn’t speeding. He wasn’t texting on his cell phone. And with most of Miami taking President’s Day off, he wasn’t fighting traffic.
Then suddenly, with a clear roadway before him, Smith violently turned the steering wheel of his city of Miami garbage truck to the right, sending his vehicle off the Interstate 95 Southwest Seventh Street exit ramp, newly released video footage shows. As the truck plummeted for three long seconds down into José Martí Park, investigators believe footage from inside the cab also shows that Smith was ejected mid-air like a fighter pilot without a parachute.
Rescue crews arriving at the scene found the Smith, 32, lying in a yellow driver’s vest on asphalt amid concrete rubble and several tons of scattered recyclables, just feet from the twisted steel of his truck, which landed so forcefully its cab was split from its garbage container, its door blown off. He was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital with serious injuries, and has since recovered enough to have been released. No one else was hurt.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
How did he survive that accident? He fell 75 feet
Joe Sanchez, Florida Highway Patrol spokesman
Florida Highway Patrol investigators are now calling his survival astounding. They’re also calling the crash Smith’s fault, and citing him for careless driving and failure to wear a seat belt.
“The video speaks for itself,” said Joe Sanchez, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman.
The footage of the crash, released Monday by investigators, was recorded by city of Miami vendor Lytx, which has cameras installed throughout the city of Miami’s fleet of 142 solid waste vehicles in order to document crashes and dissuade careless driving. The footage shows the inside of the truck’s cab, the roadway ahead and the speed and direction of the vehicle.
The 12-second video begins with Smith driving south at 40 miles per hour from the left lane of the two-lane Southwest Seventh Street exit ramp, which arcs high over the Miami River and the popular José Martí Park, home to a popular afterschool program. He is driving from the passenger’s seat of the truck, which is equipped with dual steering wheels.
The video shows nothing in front of Smith, who seems to be looking a bit to the right. And then, the vehicle veers slightly to the left. Investigators believe the footage shows that Smith twice bumps the ramp’s left barrier, and then over-corrects to the right, steering the truck off the highway. As the truck tips over and the contents of the cab are tossed wildly, Smith’s chair is still visible, but his body seems to disappear.
The video shooting towards the front of the 2007 LaFranc Condor Heil side-loader shows it fall down to the brick pavers below between a pool building and community center, where thankfully no kids or parents were milling about. Many have pondered the luck of the timing of the crash, on a holiday, and the luck of Smith’s survival.
“How did he survive that accident? He fell 75 feet. He was ejected from the truck, the video clearly shows it. And still, he survived,” said Sanchez. “He was born that day, and if he doesn’t go to church, he should start.”
Attempts to reach Smith on Monday were unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach Joe Simmons, the president of the AFSCME chapter that represents Miami’s solid-waste employees. Simmons had previously pondered that Smith was ejected from the truck when it landed, since the right-side door was blown off.
Miami-Dade court records show Smith has been cited on eight previous occasions for traffic violations ranging from driving without a license to having no proof of insurance and careless driving. All those offenses occurred before 2010, years before he became a solid-waste driver for the city.
As for the truck, city records show the vehicle was regularly maintained. On the morning of the crash, several tires were replaced. City officials previously said they’ve had no indication there was any equipment malfunction during the incident.
City Manager Daniel Alfonso released a statement late Monday, noting the effectiveness of the city’s Lytx DriveCam program, which cost about $500,000 over a four-year contract, and calling Smith’s survival “nothing short of a miracle.” But privately, Miami officials aren’t as sold as the Florida Highway Patrol that the video explicitly shows what caused the crash.
“The recording is proof that this technology works and can provide answers about driving events that would otherwise be difficult to assess,” said Alfonso. “The video shows Mr. Smith was not texting or using his phone and no other vehicle appears to be involved.”
This article was corrected to show that on the morning of the crash, tires on the truck were replaced, but no work was done to the trucks' axles.