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Monday, April 15, 2024

Ten dead in series of multi-vehicle accidents on I-75

<p>The charred wreckage of a semitrailer and an SUV sit on Interstate 75 Sunday afternoon.&nbsp; The wreck claimed at least ten lives.</p>

The charred wreckage of a semitrailer and an SUV sit on Interstate 75 Sunday afternoon.  The wreck claimed at least ten lives.

Ronny Herrera was headed north on Interstate 75 when he suddenly couldn't see what was in front of him.

The 19-year-old advertising sophomore was on his way back to Gainesville from Gasparilla in Tampa with four friends.

At about 4 a.m., Herrera approached Paynes Prairie State Park when he hit what he described as a thick wall of smoke.

He quickly slowed down to 5 miles per hour.

"I had to open my window and stick my head out to even see the lines on the highway," he said. "I couldn't see anything past the edge of my car."

The smoke and fog blanketing the highway early Sunday morning obscured everything: drivers' vision, rescue efforts and the details of how a series of wrecks claimed 10 lives.

What started as a brush fire ended in one of the most deadly pile-ups in North Florida history, involving about 20 vehicles and sending 18 people to the hospital.

One Florida Highway Patrol officer said it was the worst accident he'd seen in his 27-year career.

As of Sunday night, the identities of those involved were not released.

At around 2:45 p.m. Saturday, a brush fire started on Paynes Prairie, sending smoke billowing across U.S. 441 and I-75. As night fell, so did the temperatures, bringing in a heavy fog to mix with the smoke.

The low visibility caused FHP officers to temporarily close U.S. 441 and I-75 after a series of minor accidents.

But hours later, the interstate was reopened after FHP officers determined that drivers would be able to see the road for at least a mile.

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Then the crashes started again.

At about 4 a.m., FHP received the first 911 call from I-75 between mile markers 377 and 378.

The southbound lane of I-75 went up in flames as a FedEx truck and another semi-truck carrying Puffs tissues crashed into each other.

Tissue boxes, newspapers and books with burnt edges lay among the smoldering remains of the semitrailers' skeletons.

A four-door Pontiac Grand Prix was crushed underneath a Dodge Ram pickup. The charred remains of a body were visible inside the Grand Prix.

Herrera, blindly driving through the scene, thought he was in the middle of a brush fire.

"I saw flames, stacks of fire," he said. "We kept hearing bangs."

As Herrera narrowly missed becoming involved in one of the northbound wrecks, Alachua County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Todd Kelly was arriving on the scene.

The smoke and fog was so thick, Kelly said, he couldn't see 6 feet in front of his face.

Rescue workers had to find victims by their groans and screams.

"You could hear people moaning, screaming ‘help me,' and you can't even see," he said.

Workers had to dodge the trucks' cargo and exploding tires as they removed victims from their cars.

Then, yards away in the northbound lanes, the second series of wrecks began.

Cars, trying to avoid the accidents, swerved off the interstate on both sides, leaving deep tire marks in the grass.

The passenger vehicles involved were of various makes and models and bore Florida and out-of-state tags, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said. There were six or seven commercial vehicles involved.

Hours after the accidents, mangled, burned-out cars and trucks spanned about a mile of highway.

Some emergency workers shoveled metal and ashes off the roadway while others still worked to remove bodies from the wreckage.

Eighteen people were taken to Shands at UF with injuries, said Lt. Patrick Riordan of FHP. Of those, 12 were taken to the emergency room and six were taken to Shands' Level 1 Trauma Center, reserved for the most critical injuries.

Dr. Timothy Flynn, chief medical officer at Shands, said the hospital has a disaster alert system it uses to get extra nurses, doctors, surgeons and anesthesiologists on staff in the case of catastrophic accidents like this one.

He said the majority of injuries the staff saw were blunt trauma to the head and chest and broken bones.

The interstate was closed in both directions Sunday from mile marker 368 to the Williston Road exit at mile marker 382 while the accidents were investigated and emergency workers cleared the scene. Traffic was diverted to U.S. 441.

Sheriff Darnell said if poor visibility conditions continued Sunday night, police would station themselves along the highway with their lights on to warn drivers of the unsafe conditions.

She advised drivers to slow down if visibility is bad, to maintain a safe distance from other cars and to get off the roadway if conditions become unsafe.

Florida Forest Service spokeswoman Ludie Bond said the fire that started on Paynes Prairie east of U.S. 441 on Saturday is totally contained but is still active. It has consumed 62 acres of the prairie so far, she said, and officials are still investigating its cause.

"[This fire] will probably continue to put up smoke because it will continue to burn for weeks or even months," she said.

A similar fire from November is still burning, she said, because the dried vegetation on the prairie is so thick and deep.

Northbound lanes on I-75 reopened at about 6 p.m. Sunday. Emergency workers were still clearing vehicles from the southbound lanes Sunday evening, Riordan said.

As of Sunday evening, all six patients in the trauma center were still receiving care, and four of the patients in the emergency room remained in the hospital, according to a Shands news release.

Herrera and his friends made it home safely. When they woke up later that morning, they saw photos of what they had driven through.

"I'm lucky to be alive," Herrera said. "We all are."

The charred wreckage of a semitrailer and an SUV sit on Interstate 75 Sunday afternoon.  The wreck claimed at least ten lives.

Dense fog and smoke can be seen from Ronny Herrera's car as he drives northbound on Interstate 75 at about 4 a.m. Sunday. Herrera is a 19-year-old advertising sophomore at UF.

Emergency vehicles sit on Interstate 75 Sunday afternoon.  Emergency workers were called to an early-morning accident on I-75 that claimed at least 10 lives.

Smoke from the Paynes Prairie brush fire clouds U.S. 441 as motorists drive past on Sunday afternoon.  Smoke from this brush fire combined with early morning fog caused poor visibility that led to a major accident on Interstate 75 that claimed at least ten lives.

Emergency vehicles and workers line Interstate 75 as trapped motorists are freed from thier vehicles Sunday afternoon.  The accident claimed at least ten lives.

A Pontiac Grand Prix containing charred remains sits on Interstate 75 Sunday afternoon.  After the crash, A Dodge Ram ended up on top of the Grand Prix, crushing it.

A Dodge Ram sits on a wrecker after being removed from the top of a Pontiac Grand Prix on Interstate 75 Sunday afternoon.  The vehicle was involved in an accident that claimed at least ten lives.

The burned remains of a Pontiac Grand Prix sit on Interstate 75 while emergency workers tend to injured motorists Sunday afternoon.  The Sunday morning wreck claimed at least ten lives.

A totaled Toyota Matrix involved in the Interstate 75 wreck that claimed at least ten lives sits on a tow truck Sunday afternoon. 

Workers inspect a burnt area of Paynes Prairie Sunday Afternoon.  This brushfire combined with early morning fog caused poor visibility early Sunday morning resulting in an accident on Interstate 75 that claimed at least 10 lives.

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