Late last Saturday night, after a Christian conference in Orlando, two pastors from a Brazilian church in suburban Atlanta debated whether to drive home through the night or wait until the morning. One opted to stay. The other decided to go. Jose Carmo Jr., known as "Pastor Junior" to his parishioners in Marietta, Ga., wanted to make it back for church on Sunday.
Almost 120 miles north, Shelsie Ballew and Aimee Nelson, old friends and young mothers, tended bar at a busy, noisy nightclub in Gainesville. Their shift had started at 10 and would extend into the wee hours. The music blared as they made Amaretto Sours and vodka and cranberry cocktails for hundreds of students from the University of Florida.
In between, out in Paynes Prairie south of Gainesville, state troopers and workers from the Florida Forest Service worried about a brush fire that had been spotted in the middle of the afternoon. They had contained it, but it was still smoking, and they knew that darkness brought cooler air. They knew that cooler air sinks and makes smoke hug the ground in low-lying areas like the prairie. And they knew fog was expected to occur that night if the temperature dropped to 36 degrees. The combination could make for treacherous conditions on the stretches of Highway 441 and Interstate 75 that cut through the prairie.
Six of the church members got in a black Dodge Caravan. Eight more got in a white Ford passenger van.
They left Orlando and started heading north.
Pastor Junior and the rest of the Carmo family came from Brazil to this country 12 years ago. He worked with senior pastor Arao Amazonas at the International Church of the Restoration. They had spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the IIwI Cell Vision Conference hosted by the Living Water Church in Orlando, where they listened to sermons about resurrection and second chances. Pastors preached with such intensity that people leapt from their seats and held high their open-palmed hands.
So Junior, refreshed and energized from the weekend, sat in the group's black van. He was also with his wife, Adrianna Carmo; his 17-year-old daughter, Leticia Carmo; and his 15-year-old daughter, Lidiana Carmo.
Joilson Lima originally was going to drive the black van, but he had played drums all weekend at the conference, and his arms were tired. He asked if somebody else could drive. Junior's brother, Edson Carmo, had agreed, and so his fiancee, Roselia DeSilva, was sitting with him up front.
Lima had ended up in the white van instead.
Meanwhile, up in the prairie, the roads had been closed. Concerns had come true. Smoke had snaked onto 441 and I-75. Cars and trucks crashed, people were taken to hospitals, and people stranded in their cars shut off their engines and got blankets from trunks.
The temperature kept dropping.
The black van led. The white van followed.
• • •
Shelsie Ballew's main job, she says, is to care for her son, Kaedyn Ballew, who is 2 and has leukemia. He was given a 65 percent chance of survival when he was diagnosed before his first birthday. Now he's in remission. She decided to go back to work in Gainesville, at the nightclub, Saturday nights only.
Doors closed at 2. Ballew and Aimee Nelson cleaned up and counted their tips and went out to get in Ballew's black Ford Expedition to head back to Ocala. It was 3:15.
They started down 441 but were stopped by sheriff's deputies, they say, who told them that the road was closed but that I-75 was now open again. It was 3:30.
They drove back through town, stopped to get gas, then stopped again at the Taco Bell on Archer Road, near Exit 384 and the ramp onto I-75. It was 4.
The temperature was 36.
Five miles south, in the prairie at Mile Marker 379, a woman and her friend in a Camry couldn't see where they were going and crashed into a guardrail. They called 911.
"I can't see anything," the woman on the side of I-75 told the operator. "It's so dense. The fog is so dense."
"There's lots of smoke and fog," her friend said in the background.
The operator stopped her. "I'm going to have to let you go," she said. "We have a lot of lines ringing."
"Oh s---!" said the woman on the side of I-75. "Another accident. Oh, my gosh. Another accident. Another accident going northbound. Oh, my goodness. And that was a truck."
"What kind of truck?" the operator asked. "Like a semi or a pickup?"
"We cannot see," the woman said. "It's impossible to see!"
Up at the Archer Road Taco Bell, Ballew got a soft taco and a Dr Pepper, Nelson got a burrito and a Sprite, and they pulled onto I-75. Nelson crossed her legs in the passenger seat and ate her food. The old friends kept the radio off and talked in the quiet. The air was clear until all of a sudden it wasn't.
• • •
Semis started to stop on the northbound side of I-75.
Four Delta Zeta sorority sisters from Florida State University were in a white Honda Accord. They hit the back of one of the trucks and ended up in the roadway off to the left.
Four friends headed back to the University of Florida from Gasparilla in Tampa clipped the back right of the semi. It sheared the front left wheel from their silver Infiniti and they ended up in the grass off to the right.
The woman on the southbound side of I-75 became something like a blind narrator.
"Is anybody pinned?" the operator asked.
"We can't tell," the woman said.
"Was anybody thrown from the vehicles?"
"We can't tell."
"Do you see any fire?"
"We can't see!"
Steven Camps II and friend James McGill in a blue Toyota Camry stopped in a northbound lane behind a semi. They opened a window and started talking to a man in the next lane who had done the same. Then with no warning something else smashed into the back of that car and pushed it into and under one of the trucks. The man was there, Camps would say later, and then he wasn't.
The 911 operator could hear the sounds of the wrecks, like gunshots in the dark, through the cellphone of the woman standing on the other side of I-75.
"Here comes another one," the woman said into the phone. "He's coming too fast. Here comes another one."
"Oh, s---," she said. "That one was a bad one." The woman started crying on the phone.
Jason Raikes was a 26-year-old from Chesterfield, Va., who had moved to Gainesville last year for a fresh start. He had gotten a new job and was taking online classes and had met a girl.
Christie Diana Nguyen was a vivacious, artistic, 27-year-old mother of a 5-year-old boy named Drew. She was a UF graduate who danced at the theatre at Santa Fe Community College. They had visited his family in Virginia for Thanksgiving and his parents had seen that their son was in love.
They were together on I-75 in her blue Toyota Matrix. His LinkedIn profile cites his "ability to remain calm under duress." His obituary would say he died with his soulmate.
The leading black church van hit the back left of the semi that hit the Toyota Matrix. The trailing white van hit the back right.
People sleeping in the white van came to surrounded by smoke. The drummer held a shirt to his wife's face, which had hit the windshield, and then ran to the crumpled black van. The back of the truck was inside the peeled-open cab. Only Junior's younger daughter, seated in the back left of the van, was alive.
"When he got there," family friend Tiago Azevedo said, "he said it didn't look like people anymore. Just shreds of flesh."
• • •
On the southbound side, a semi stopped in the right lane, and a semi stopped in the center lane.
A pickup truck with three people from Pensacola crashed into the semi in the right lane. In it were Sabryna Hughes Gilley, 17, and her father, Michael Hughes, and his wife, Lori Hughes. They were headed to Lori's father's funeral in Sarasota. Sabryna was outgoing, friends say, and spoke her mind. She wanted to be a pediatrician when she grew up. Maybe, her mother would say later, she was in the back seat, in the dark at that early hour, curled up asleep.
Another pickup truck crashed into the other semi. A Pontiac Grand Prix crashed into that pickup with such force that it lifted the pickup off the ground. Von Robinson, 22, had buried his 15-month-old son two days before. His own obituary would say that he will be missed by his grandparents, his parents, his two children and his 15 brothers and sisters.
The bartenders from Gainesville had driven in Ballew's Expedition for about five minutes from Taco Bell when they entered what she described as "a wall" of impenetrable gray.
Nelson told her to slow down. Ballew went from 70 miles per hour down to 60 and then saw the white back of a truck. There was no time, both of them say, to do anything but register in their minds what was about to happen.
"We're going to die," Ballew said out loud. She looked at the clock on the dash and saw 4:22. She closed her eyes.
• • •
One of the UF students from the Infiniti with the ripped off wheel stood in the grass and called home to Orlando. He said that he was okay, but that he couldn't see anything, not even 5 feet in front of his face. The 22-year-old told his father he could hear people crying.
On the other side of the highway, Ballew opened her eyes, and Nelson did, too. They looked at each other, stunned to be alive. The back of the semi was on fire, the pickup under the semi was on fire, and the front of the Expedition was on fire. The flames were moving toward their windshield.
"We've got to get out," Nelson told Ballew. "I'm not burning alive."
They climbed into the back seat, where Nelson broke her foot trying to kick open the door, and they climbed out onto the pavement. Nelson collapsed. Ballew helped her up and held her hand and they ran from the fire and toward the prairie.
"Help!" they wailed.
"Help us! Somebody help!"
The state troopers, sheriff's deputies and paramedics who arrived could barely see their own hoods. They had to get out and walk. The mixture of fog and smoke hovered just above the ground. They could feel the heat of the fires before they could see their light. Bangs of explosions echoed across the open prairie. They found people who could still be saved by listening for their screams and moans.
• • •
Sunrise on what would be the busiest day in the history of the Shands trauma center in Gainesville was at 7:19. The temperature went up and the fog lifted like a curtain to reveal an apocalyptic scene spread across six lanes of the strip of interstate in the middle of Paynes Prairie.
Ballew stood next to a trooper's car in her black boots and blue jeans and clutched a blanket. Sheets covered bodies. Burnt corpses could be seen in cars. Strewn all over I-75 were chunks of twisted metal, incinerated skeletons of trucks, charred bits of books. A Gatorade bottle. A handbag. A shoe. A license plate loose on the pavement. FLORIDA. IN GOD WE TRUST.
The sky turned a high bright blue.
The fire smoldered out in the prairie.
The shiny black SUVs from the county Coroner's Office were on their way.
News researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Lee Logan, Marissa Lang, Emily Nipps, Jamal Thalji and Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751.