A series of deadly crashes on a Florida highway overnight killed at least ten people, and officials say the death toll may rise.
Florida Highway Patrol Lieutenant Patrick Riordan says heavy smoke from a nearby marsh fire hampered visibility on Interstate 75 in Gainesville and led to the pileups in the early morning hours today.
“That smoke combined with some fog that moved into the area and kind of settled into this area of this interstate and made visibility an issue,” Riordan said. “It definitely had an effect in a very bad way.”
Steven R. Camps of Gainesville told the AP he was driving home with some friends several hours before dawn when they approached the pileup.
“You could hear cars hitting each other. People were crying. People were screaming. It was crazy,” he told the AP. “If I could give you an idea of what it looked like, I would say it looked like the end of world.”
Camps said he was surrounded by burning vehicles.
“It was happening on both sides of the road, so there was nowhere to go. It blew my mind,” he told the AP. “[It] looked like someone was picking up cars and throwing them.”
Both I-75 and U.S. 441 had been closed before the crashes because of limited visibility. The highways were later reopened because conditions had improved, according to Riordan.
Crashes because of the smoke also were reported on U.S. 441, according to The Gainesville Sun.
Alachua County Sheriff’s Sergeant Todd Kelly said five large commercial vehicles were involved, along with six to eight passenger cars. Some vehicles burst into flames.
“Those crashes resulted in at least nine fatalities. Those numbers are expected to possibly rise depending on how things unfold,” Kelly said.
When rescuers first arrived, they could not see through the fog, and so they had to listen for screams and moans, police said, according to the Associated Press.
“Very sad. I mean it’s just a devastating day up there to see the loss of life and just a mangled mess, lots of debris on the roadway, lots of vehicles on the roadway, it was a very very dangerous scene up there last night with zero visibility,” Kelly said.
The crashes left only the burned shells of vehicles, sprawled out for more than half a mile.
“The smell, the sight, those sort of things, you just can’t shake those images out of your head, what those people went through, during the moments, probably just sheer terror up there for a while,” he said.
Riordan said the crash site was a devastating scene.
“It’s tragic. It’s not something new to us, but it’s a little unusual to have this many vehicles and this many people killed in one spot,” Riordan said.
I-75 remained closed as of 10:30 a.m., and is expected to remain closed into the afternoon. U.S. 441 reopened around 11 a.m. this morning.