Florida Highway Pileup Kills at Least 10 People

By MIKE SCHNEIDER | January 31, 2012

A long line of cars and trucks collided one after another early Sunday on a dark Florida highway so shrouded in haze and smoke that drivers were virtually blinded. At least 10 people were killed.

Visibility was so poor that when rescuers first arrived, they could only listen for screams and moans to locate victims, police said. At least 18 people were injured.

Authorities were still trying to determine what caused the pileup south of Gainesville on Interstate 75, which had been closed for a time because of the mixture of fog and heavy smoke from a brush fire that may have been intentionally set. At least five cars and six tractor-trailers were involved, and some burst into flame.

Photographs of the scene revealed a gruesome aftermath, with twisted, burned-out vehicles scattered across the pavement and smoke still rising above the wreckage. Cars appeared to have smashed into the big rigs and, in one case, a motor home. Some cars were crushed beneath the heavier trucks.

Reporters who were allowed to view the site saw one tractor-trailer that was burned down to its skeleton, with charred pages of books and magazines in its cargo area. Bodies were still visible inside a burned-out Grand Prix. The rubber on the tires of every vehicle had burned away, leaving only steel belts.

State police estimated that wreckage was strewn for nearly a mile (1.6 kilometers) in both directions.

Steven R. Camps, 23, of Gainesville, said he and some friends were driving home early Sunday morning in separate vehicles.

His friend was ahead of them as they headed toward Gainesville on Interstate 75 and called to warn them of heavy fog and smoke. The friend told Camps he had just seen an accident and warned them to be careful as they approached the Paynes Prairie area just south of Gainesville.

A short time later, Camps said traffic stopped along the northbound lanes because of heavy smoke and fog.

“You couldn’t see anything. People were pulling off the road,” he said.

Camps said he and his friend began talking to a man in the car stopped next to them about the road conditions, when another vehicle hit the man’s car.

Camps said the man’s vehicle was crushed under a semi-truck stopped in front of them. Camps said his car was hit twice, but he and his friend were able to jump out. They took cover in the grass on the shoulder of the road.

“You could hear cars hitting each other. People were crying. People were screaming. It was crazy,” he said. “If I could give you an idea of what it looked like, I would say it looked like the end of world.”

He said cars and trucks were on fire and they could hear explosions as the vehicles burned.

“It was happening on both sides of the road, so there was nowhere to go. It blew my mind,” he said. “It was like a war zone. It literally looked like someone was picking up cars and throwing them.”

At least 18 people were treated at an area hospital.

Dr. Timothy Flynn, chief medical officer for Shands Healthcare at the University of Florida, said three of the six patients being treated in the trauma center needed surgery. Four patients remain in the hospital’s emergency room, and eight people have been treated and released.

Flynn said most people had head and chest injuries or broken bones. Those treated at the trauma center had the most serious injuries.

All six lanes of the interstate – which runs virtually the entire length of Florida – remained closed at midday as investigators surveyed the site and firefighters sprayed foam on the wreckage to put out the last of the fires.

It was not clear when the highway would reopen because part of the road melted, Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan said. That means transportation inspectors have to first sign off on the road before it can open to traffic again.

At some point before the pileup, police briefly closed the highway because of the fog and smoke, which came from a fire in the Paynes Prairie area south of Gainesville. The road was reopened when visibility improved.

Riordan said he was not sure how much time passed between the reopening of the highway and the first crash.

Ludie Bond, a Florida Forest Service spokeswoman, said the fire began Saturday, and investigators are determining whether the fire was intentionally set or caused by accident. She said there were no controlled burns in the area and no lightning.

She said the fire had burned 62 acres (25 hectares) and was contained but still burning Sunday.

(Associated Press Writer Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed to this report.)

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