Video: Heavy smoke, fog led to deadly Florida pileup

  1. Closed captioning of: Heavy smoke, fog led to deadly Florida pileup

    >>> good evening. it was such a bad accident, so severe, that the folks we usually associate with airline disasters, investigators from the national transportation safety board are on the scene to investigate this one. people were just driving on the interstate when it happened. suddenly, vehicles driving straight ahead plowed instead into a horrible scene. a massive wreck that left an awful death toll and scarred that section of roadway along with all the lives connected to it. tonight, ten people are dead, 18 people injured. all because drivers were blinded by a brushfire on i-75 in the state of florida. the state in the news these days for politics, where they are mourning these victims tonight. nbc's mark potter starts us off from there this evening.

    >> reporter: authorities say heavy smoke from a wildfire mixed with fog led to the horrific string of accidents which about 20 cars and trucks slammed into each other, some catching fire. the pile-ups occurred in the pitch dark around 4:00 a.m . sunday. terrified callers to 911 describe one crash after the other.

    >> oh, my god. oh, my god. what is going on?

    >> we are getting help out there okay?

    >> oh, my goodness.

    >> how many vehicles have been involved?

    >> we cannot see, ma'am. this is the third one already.

    >> reporter: in the entangled mess, rescue workers had to cut many victims from the wreckage. steven camp survived being hit twice and saw another driver get killed.

    >> it almost looked like a terrorist attack. you could see the pain, uncertainty and despair everybody had on their face.

    >> reporter: i-75 was shut down all day sunday causing miles-long traffic jams. today firefighters work to extinguish still-burning hot spots the florida patrol face questions about why the smoky highway was open sunday morning when visibility was so poor.

    >> it's impossible to see. the haze is and the smoke, it's very thick.

    >> reporter: the highway had briefly been shut down earlier that morning, but was reopened.

    >> we made an assessment and came to the conclusion the road was safe to travel. that's when we opened the road up.

    >> reporter: with the crash investigation, officials are also trying to determine what caused the wildfire, and whether it was arson. mark potter , nbc news, miami.

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/30/2012 7:34:53 PM ET 2012-01-31T00:34:53

The Florida Highway Patrol says there was a three-vehicle crash just hours before a series of pileups killed 10 people and injured 18 others on the same stretch of Interstate 75.

According to the report released Monday, heavy smoke and fog resulted in low visibility along I-75 south of Gainesville late Saturday. About 11:55 p.m. Saturday, a tractor-trailer hit a Toyota in the northbound lanes. A Lexus then hit the back of the truck.

Authorities say a passenger in the Lexus was sent to the hospital in serious condition.

The Highway Patrol closed I-75 and nearby U.S. 441 a short time later, due to worsening road conditions. But the highway was then reopened early Sunday and a series of pileups began around 3:45 a.m., some of them fatal.

'People were screaming'
Steven R. Camps and some friends were driving home on the interstate when they heard "cars hitting each other."

"People were crying, People were screaming. It was crazy," the Gainesville resident told The Associated Press hours later. "If I could give you an idea of what it looked like, I would say it looked like the end of the world."

Some of the road's asphalt melted.

Lt. Patrick Riordan, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman, described the pileup as "probably the worst one I've seen in 27 years."

Riordan said investigators are still trying to determine how many separate collisions occurred on the interstate.

The pileups happened around 3:45 a.m. Sunday on both sides of I-75. When rescuers first arrived, they could only listen for screams and moans because the poor visibility made it difficult to find victims in wreckage that was strewn for nearly a mile.

"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,” Alachua County Sheriff's Sgt. Todd Kelly told the Gainesville Sun.

Image: Debris and wreckage following multi-vehicle crash on I-75 near Gainsville, Fla.
Phil Sandlin  /  AP
Debris and wreckage are littered along I-75 after a deadly multi-vehicle accident south of Gainesville, Fla., on Sunday.

At least a dozen cars and six tractor-trailers were involved, and some burst into flames.

Hours later, twisted, burned-out vehicles were scattered across the pavement, with smoke still rising from the wreckage.

Cars appeared to have smashed into the big rigs and, in one case, a motor home. Some cars were crushed beneath the heavier trucks.

Fog bank
Reporters who were allowed to view the site saw bodies still inside a burned-out Grand Prix. One tractor-trailer was burned down to its skeleton, charred pages of books and magazines in its cargo area. And the tires of every vehicle had burned away, leaving only steel belts.

Before Camps hit the fog bank, a friend who was driving ahead of him in a separate vehicle called to warn of the road conditions. The friend said he had just seen an accident and urged Camps to be careful as he approached the Paynes Prairie area, just south of Gainesville.

A short time later, Camps said, traffic stopped along the northbound lanes.

"You couldn't see anything. People were pulling off the road," he said.

Camps said he began talking about the road conditions to a man in the car stopped next to him when another vehicle hit that man's car.

Explosions
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 another friend were able to jump out. They took cover in the grass on the shoulder of the road.

All around them, 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, explaining that the scene "looked like someone was picking up cars and throwing them."

Authorities had not released the names of victims Sunday evening, but said one passenger car had four fatalities. A "tour bus-like" vehicle also was involved in the pileup, police said.

All six lanes of the interstate were closed most of Sunday as investigators surveyed the site and firefighters put out the last of the flames.

The northbound lanes were reopened at about 5:30 p.m. The Gainesville Sun reported that the southbound lanes reopened at around 11 p.m. on Sunday.

No sign of lightning
At some point before the pileup, police briefly closed the highway because of fog and smoke. The road was reopened when visibility improved, police said. Riordan said he was not sure how much time passed between the reopening of the highway and the first crash.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Forest Service, Ludie Bond, said the fire began Saturday, and investigators were trying to determine whether the blaze had been intentionally set. She said there were no controlled burns in the area and no lightning.

Bond also said the fire had burned 62 acres and was contained but still burning Sunday. A similar fire nearby has been burning since mid-November because the dried vegetation is so thick and deep. No homes are threatened.

Four years ago, heavy fog and smoke were blamed for another serious crash.

In January 2008, four people were killed and 38 injured in a series of 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, including one pileup that involved 40 vehicles.

The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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