Investigators say the pileup of 11 cars and three trucks began after a Chevrolet blew a tire.
It took only seconds for 11 cars and three trucks to smash into one another on eastbound Interstate 4 early Sunday, killing an 18-year-old Lakeland woman, injuring eight other people and tying up traffic for most of the day.
Getting help to the injured and clearing the road took more than 14 hours Sunday, forcing the Highway Patrol to close a 2-mile stretch of the interstate until about 7 p.m.
People traveling east on I-4 faced a lengthy detour through Plant City. Westbound traffic also slowed as people stared at the aftermath of what FHP Capt. Miguel Guzman called "the worst accident on I-4 in years."
"There's no doubt that it's a miracle we did not have another death or life-threatening injuries out here," Guzman said.
Guzman said it was too early to pinpoint a cause of the accident, given the different experiences of each of the 14 drivers, and the possibility that dense fog may have played a role.
The accident happened at 3:51 a.m., and investigators suspect that alcohol or drugs may have been used by some drivers. Workers cleaning up the scene Sunday afternoon found two small bags of marijuana among the CDs and sunglasses strewn on the ground beside one wrecked car. In another, workers described finding a small straw with white powder inside.
If investigators determine that any of the drivers were under the influence, they will be charged, Guzman said. However, he added that the most likely explanation is that many factors caused the crash.
The picture investigators have so far is this:
The pileup began when a Chevrolet Impala blew a tire while traveling down the center lane. The driver of the Impala managed to get the car into the left lane and nearly off the road, but it wasn't enough. A 1996 Ford Mustang rear-ended the Impala and then went spinning across the roadway before smashing into the concrete guardrail.
The spinning Mustang caused a chain of crashes as other drivers tried to avoid it. A Ford Explorer driven by a Lakeland man and a Porsche 911 from Georgia sustained heavy damage and their occupants were injured. But a 1999 Honda Civic bore the brunt of the accident.
The Civic was so badly damaged that its only clear identifiers Sunday were the Honda emblems on the hubcaps. Rescue workers had to cut the top of the car off to get to its injured driver, 20-year-old Mark Allan Hamilton of Lakeland. Help came too late for his friend in the passenger's seat, April Hill, 18, of Lakeland. Hill was killed instantly from blunt trauma after her side of the car was smashed.
The driver of the Mustang wasn't seriously injured until after he got out of his car. As a spinning Kia Sportage hurtled toward him, he jumped behind the guardrail, probably expecting ground on the other side, Guzman said. Instead, he fell 20 feet to a frontage road and broke his leg.
Six others were injured and taken to Lakeland Regional Medical Center, but Guzman said none of those injuries were life-threatening.
Hamilton rested in his hospital bed Sunday night surrounded by his family.
"He remembers everything, but he can't talk about it," said his uncle Keith Adkins. "He's too devastated to think about that now. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."