Image: Fatal Wreck
Matt Stamey  /  The Gainesville Sun via AP
Officials work at the scene of a multi-vehicle wreck on Interstate 75 south of Gainesville, Fla., on Sunday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/29/2012 7:30:43 PM ET 2012-01-30T00:30:43

At least 10 people died in crashes overnight apparently caused by smoke from a fire along Interstate 75 in north Florida, authorities said Sunday.

Image: Fatal Wreck
Matt Stamey  /  The Gainesville Sun via AP
The wrecks on Interstate 75 Sunday included this scene.

Nine people were confirmed dead at the scene, and a 10th fatality was later reported. A local hospital was treating 20 people for injuries. Their conditions were unclear.

At least four to five large commercial vehicles and 10 passenger vehicles were involved. Many were badly mangled.

Reporters who were allowed to view the site saw one tractor-trailer that was burned down to its skeleton, charred pages of books and magazines in its cargo area. Bodies were still visible inside a burned-out Grand Prix. The rubber on the tires of every vehicle had burned away, leaving only steel belts.

State police estimated that wreckage was strewn for nearly a mile in both directions.

Steven Camps, 23, of Gainesville, said he and a friend had stopped due to the smoke and began talking to a man in the car stopped next to them, when another vehicle hit the man's car.

Camps said the man's vehicle was crushed under a semi-truck stopped in front of them. Camps said his car was hit twice, but he and his friend were able to jump out. They took cover in the grass on the shoulder of the road.

"You could hear cars hitting each other. People were crying. People were screaming. It was crazy," he said. "If I could give you an idea of what it looked like, I would say it looked like the end of world."

He said cars and trucks were on fire and 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. "It was like a war zone. It literally looked like someone was picking up cars and throwing them."

"That's a very scary thing when you can't see anything and hear the squealing of tires and don't know if 2,000 pounds of metal is coming at you," The Gainesville Sun quoted Alachua County Sheriff's Sgt. Todd Kelly as saying.

"We just hit it, and you couldn't see anything," added Donna Henry, who was driving with friends when her car hit a guardrail and ended up sideways.

From the side of the road she heard more crashes. "Like 15 times somebody hit, from this side and that, north and south. It was bad."

In one crash, a pickup truck was left sitting atop a passenger car and both were up against the rear end of a FedEx tractor-trailer. All vehicles were burned out.

The pile-ups, on both north- and southbound lanes, happened around 3:45 a.m. Sunday on both sides of I-75 south of Gainesville.

All lanes of the interstate remained closed as investigators began their work examining the vehicles, many of them just burned shells.

Image: Fatal Wreck
Matt Stamey  /  The Gainesville Sun via AP
These vehicles were among those involved in the wrecks along Florida's Interstate 75 on Sunday.

The Florida Highway Patrol had closed the highway briefly earlier overnight because of a mixture of fog and smoke from a marsh fire in the Paynes Prairie area south of Gainesville.

The agency had several troopers driving along the stretch of I-75 to access the situation early Sunday.

"When the visibility cleared, we reopened the road," said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan.

The fire was manmade and started on Saturday, police said. It was not known if it was accidentally or deliberately set.

Heavy fog and smoke were blamed for a deadly string of accidents four years ago. In January 2008, four people were killed and 38 injured similar crashes on Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa, about 125 miles south of Sunday's crash. More than 70 vehicles were involved in those crashes caused by fog and smoke, including one pile-up that involved 40 vehicles.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Deadly crashes close I-75

  1. Closed captioning of: Deadly crashes close I-75

    >> tonight a stretch of i-75 remains closed in florida . 15 hours after a deadly pileup this morning. cars, trucks and tractor-trailers collided in a mangled mess as a brush fire raged nearby. blinded by haze and smoke, rescuers rushed to help as crashes continued to happen all around them. tonight there are questions about why that stretch of highway was open in the first place. we get our record from nbc's lilja luciano.

    >> reporter: it's hard to tell from the cluster of these blurnt-out shells how many vehicles came crashing together on florida 's interstate 75 north of orlando early this morning. witnesses describe the scene as looking like it was the end of the world . police say at least ten people are dead and some 20 others injured after a blinding mix of heavy fog and thick smoke from a nearby brush fire blew across the highway, reducing visibility and causing havoc on both north and southbound sides of the highway.

    >> smoke and fog settled over the area quickly and dismated the visibility.

    >> reporter: highway patrol officials say they closed the road earlier but reopened it deciding visibility had improved enough and traffic was light at the time. not long after the deadly collisions began. thes started around 3:45 in the morning. when rescuers arrived police say visibility was so poor they could only find the victims by following their screams for help. officials say there were seven tractor-trailers and at least 12 passenger vehicles involved in the pileup. rescue crews were still removing bodies from the site well into the afternoon. peeling off the tops of cars to extract trapped victims. nearly 15 miles of i-75, the interstate that runs north to south on the western side of florida , remained closed throughout the day as investigators worked the scene. authorities say the brush fire that started saturday afternoon was not natural and could have been intentionally set. lilja luciano, nbc news, miami.

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