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10 killed in multiple crashes on I-75 near Gainesville

GAINESVILLE — Hours after a deadly combination of smoke and fog cleared, the skeletal remains of a semitrailer truck still smoldered. Veteran lawmen shook their heads and said they'd never seen anything like it. Survivors compared it to Armageddon.

Ten people died and another 18 were hospitalized Sunday after a series of early morning wrecks on Interstate 75 south of Gainesville that officials blamed on smoke and fog that reduced visibility to zero. At least a dozen cars and six semitrailer trucks were involved.

Visibility before the crashes was so bad that the roadway had been temporarily closed, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. But troopers decided to reopen at some point before the pileups occurred around 4 a.m.

The wildfire that contributed to the wrecks was not caused by nature, officials said, and may have been intentionally set.

The tragedy ranks among the worst traffic disasters in Florida history. Names of the victims had not been released Sunday night.

When rescuers first arrived, they couldn't see their own hands through the smoke-fog mix, police said. They could listen only for screams and moans to try to find victims in wreckage that was strewn for nearly a mile.

Photographs of the scene taken hours later revealed an aftermath that resembled a Hollywood disaster movie. Twisted, burned-out vehicles were scattered across the pavement, with smoke still rising from the wreckage.

Cars appeared to have smashed into 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 bodies still inside a burned-out Pontiac Grand Prix. The tires of every vehicle had burned away, leaving only steel belts.

"If you isolated any one of these crashes, yeah, I've seen something like that," said Sgt. Todd Kelly of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office. "But not all together on a single stretch of highway. Never seen anything like that."

Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan declined to give a time line Sunday of when troopers had closed I-75 and then ordered it reopened before the crashes.

"It's a judgement call," Riordan said of the decision that had been made to reopen the road. "We do the best we can. We don't have a crystal ball."

Sunday's disaster evoked memories of a series of similar crashes on Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa four years ago, and is again likely to raise questions about how decisions are made to open or close roadways.

Steven R. Camps of Gainesville said he and some friends were driving home several hours before dawn when they were drawn into the pileup.

A friend who was driving ahead of him called Camps to warn him of the road conditions. The friend said he had just seen an accident and told Camps to be careful as he approached the Paynes Prairie State Preserve area just south of Gainesville.

A short time later, Camps said, traffic stopped along the northbound lanes.

"You couldn't see anything. People were pulling off the road," he said.

Camps was talking about the road conditions to a man in the car stopped next to him when another vehicle hit the man's car. The man's vehicle was crushed under a semitrailer that had stopped in front of him. Camps said his car was hit twice, but he and another friend were able to jump out. They took cover in the grass on the shoulder of the road.

All around them, cars and trucks were on fire, he said. 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, explaining that the scene "looked like someone was picking up cars and throwing them."

All six lanes of the interstate remained closed for hours Sunday afternoon as investigators surveyed the site and firefighters put out the last of the flames.

Northbound lanes of the interstate were reopened about 5:40 p.m. but the southbound lanes remained closed.

Division of Forestry investigators were trying to determine whether the nearby fire had been intentionally set. There were no controlled burns in the area and no lightning, according to division spokeswoman Ludie Bond.

The fire, which consumed about 62 acres, was contained but still burning Sunday. A similar fire nearby has been burning since mid November because the dried vegetation is so thick and deep.

This normally serene stretch of I-75 that runs through the nature preserve joins other Florida roadways with the dubious distinction of hosting horrific traffic tragedies.

The worst single-vehicle traffic accident in state history remains a 1963 wreck near Lake Okeechobee in which 27 migrant workers died when their bus skidded into a canal.

On the morning of Jan. 9, 2008, five people were killed, including two from Tampa, in a 70-vehicle pileup on a heavily shrouded Interstate 4 in Polk County. That string of wrecks also injured 38 people and closed a 14-mile stretch of Central Florida's main east-west highway for more than a day.

A state highway investigation found that fog and smoke from an out-of-control wildfire contributed to the wrecks, but that careless drivers played a large role in the fatal chain reaction.

Concluding its yearlong investigation with a 53-page report, the patrol called poor visibility an attendant circumstance, but noted that many motorists that day reduced speed and made controlled stops.

The patrol had earlier been criticized for not ordering the interstate closed that morning, since troopers knew about smoke from nearby fires and had posted signs warning motorists.

But only the usual force of two state troopers patrolled the highway in Polk County in the hours before the crash. The patrol said that they were on I-4 specifically watching for smoke, but that conditions had been clear through the night — until things suddenly got worse.

"They could smell the smoke, but visibility was fine. Visibility wasn't an issue," a spokesman said at the time. "Then the fog set in the way it did, and within moments there was complete zero visibility."

Times researcher Natalie Watson and staff writer Lorri Helfand contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

10 killed in multiple crashes on I-75 near Gainesville 01/29/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 30, 2012 5:19am]
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