WESLEY CHAPEL — Of 1,150 miles in his trip, the last few were the worst. Witaly Jakowlew's drive from New York City to Gulfport should have been over around noon Thursday. Instead, he was standing at a Hess gas station on State Road 54, having just come off Interstate 75, and was looking for directions.
"All of a sudden, the traffic came to a crawl," said Jakowlew, 83, "and I've been crawling for over an hour."
Ten miles of busy southbound interstate clotted for most of Thursday after two trucks collided and burst into flames just north of State Road 56, the Florida Highway Patrol said.
The fire from the wreck and leaking diesel fuel damaged a 350-foot swath.
Remarkably, no one was seriously injured. But repair crews spent the day tearing up two layers of asphalt and repaving them, said state patrol spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins.
Officials opened one southbound lane by 5:30 p.m., said Florida Department of Transportation spokesman John McShaffrey. They expected to finish the repairs during the night and well before this morning's traffic.
The crash, involving a dump truck and a semitrailer truck, was reported about 6:30 a.m.
The semitrailer, operated by Jacksonville-based Pat Salmon & Sons of Florida, was southbound on the interstate when it crashed into a construction zone on the right. The impact caused the truck to jackknife and crash into the center guardrail, troopers said.
A dump truck, operated by R & D Hauling of Land O'Lakes, was traveling behind and unable to stop, troopers said. It crashed into the semi. Both drivers left the trucks before the vehicles caught fire.
Repairs would have taken much longer, McShaffrey said, but because the crash happened at a construction site, the crew was already on scene.
The crew has been working on a road-widening project since 2011, McShaffrey said. All the equipment needed was there and ready. All they needed was asphalt — about 12 truckloads worth.
"It was a good place for an accident, if there would have been a good place," he said.
The semitrailer truck was transporting magazines and third-class mail from Jacksonville to Tampa, said U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Debbie Fetterly. Verizon mailers bound for Safety Harbor, swimsuit magazines and magazines with American flags on the cover littered the roadway after the crash. Workers were hauling the mail in containers and placing them inside Postal Service trucks, though many items were damaged or destroyed.
USPS workers were still sorting out details as to how they'll deliver the salvaged periodicals and fliers. Customers will get apologies with their smoky mail, Fetterly said.
"We have a lot of trucks on the road," Fetterly said. "There are a lot of cars on the road. Accidents, unfortunately, do happen, and we're just grateful that no one was hurt."
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The drivers were transported to local hospitals for observation, Gaskins said.
The dump truck driver, Manuel Francisco Rodriguez Rivera, 42, of Land O'Lakes was taken to Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel.
The driver of the semi, Mark Alan Berrier, 55, of Macclenny, was taken to University Community Hospital with a broken elbow, his company dispatcher confirmed after talking with him.
At the Flying J Truck Stop in San Antonio, what is usually a bustling hub of truckers and travelers was a stagnant campground as drivers waited for the roads to open, said Steve Donahue, general manager of the rest stop.
About 100 cars and RVs and about 180 semi trucks sat in the parking lots, their drivers eating at the nearby diner or resting in their vehicles.
"There's nowhere to go, so they might as well eat," he said.
One driver told Donahue it took an hour and 15 minutes to get from Ocala to the rest stop.
Jordan Romero of Wesley Chapel was among the thousands of drivers stuck in traffic Thursday morning.
He is usually at work at an engineering company in Tampa by 9 a.m. Instead, he was diverted toward SR 54 by troopers.
"My manager also lives in Wesley Chapel," he said. "We're both in the struggle. … I've never seen it so bad."
Drivers were advised to seek alternate routes for the rest of the day, including U.S. 41 and U.S. 301.
Back at the Hess station, Jakowlew took directions around the traffic from a stranger. There was a handshake, a wish of good luck and he was back on his way to Gulfport, an hour late for a post-journey beer.
Times staff photographer Skip O'Rourke and researchers Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.