TAMPA — It was just before noon Saturday when the traffic ahead of Caitlin Monaghan came to a sudden stop.
At first, she saw only smoke coming from a semitrailer truck in the right lane of southbound Interstate 75. Then, as traffic inched forward, a chaotic scene came into view.
Moments earlier, 11 vehicles, including the truck, had collided in the two right lanes just north of State Road 60 near Brandon. Dozens of people had stopped to help, parking in the median and rushing to assist those trapped, some wearing flip flops or bathing suits.
"People were running back and forth," Monaghan said, "and one woman was running from car to car asking if we were a nurse or a doctor."
Seven people were transported to the hospital, said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Ronnie Rivera. Two — James Lee, 68, of Seffner and Jeffery Brooks, 54, of Tobyhanna, Pa. — were in critical condition but stable Saturday night, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Four others were seriously injured, including Norma Lee, 65, and Donna Lee, 23, both of Seffner. Cathy Lee, 43, of Seffner suffered minor injuries.
FHP officials said the pileup was caused by one driver cutting another off. William Morton-Holcomb, 33, of Peoria, Ariz. was cited for improperly changing lanes, the patrol said, because he cut off the semitrailer with his Chevrolet Traverse.
Before first responders could get to the scene, where the southbound lanes were closed, causing havoc on surrounding roads for hours, good Samaritans came to the aide of the injured. In the grassy median, people huddled over those with blood on their faces and clothes, said Monaghan, who was on her way home to Venice from a family vacation in Orlando.
Shock set in, Monaghan said, as she watched a group of people pull a screaming woman from the wreckage.
"Everybody in the car with us started crying," the 21-year-old said. "It's probably one of the most traumatic things I've ever experienced."
Scott Ross was on his way home from getting a hoagie at the Wawa near the University of South Florida when the crash occurred. He was about a dozen cars behind the semitrailer truck, he said.
"Traffic stopped all of a sudden near the work zone at the State Road 60 junction," said Ross of Riverview. "We all had to squeeze over so all the first responders and emergency vehicles could get through."
Ross, who turns 55 today, said he was grateful there were no further wrecks.
"Thanks to brakes on my cars, and everyone else's safe use of brakes," he said, "I'll be alive to celebrate it."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.