It was in the early hours of Jan. 29, 2012 when Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Todd Kelly received a call about an accident on Interstate 75 in Paynes Prairie State Park.
Even a year later, he remembers the scene vividly. The emergency lights flashing through the thick fog. The smell of deployed airbags, gasoline and smoke hanging in the air. The lines of wrecked vehicles stretching from one side of the prairie to the other.
“It seemed to never end,” Kelly said. “The farther I went in, the worse it got.”
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On the afternoon of Jan. 28, 2012, smoke from a Paynes Prairie brush fire blanketed U.S. 441 and I-75.
Overnight, the smoke swirled with the early morning fog, causing the Florida Highway Patrol to close the roads after responding to several accidents due to drivers’ limited visibility.
The FHP reopened the roads a few hours later. But the crashes continued.
Shortly after 4 a.m., 911 calls started to pour into FHP from I-75, according to Alligator archives.
Soon, officials were dealing with a multi-car accident that eventually left 11 people dead and more than a dozen in the hospital, according to archives.
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Today marks the one-year anniversary of the I-75 crash, an event that is considered to be one of the deadliest car accidents in the history of North Central Florida.
In the year following the crash, the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Forest Services and the FHP collaborated to make driving safer in the event that dense fog or smoke envelops the roads along Paynes Prairie.
The city installed cameras along I-75 to monitor the traffic and to send live images of the road to the Gainesville City Traffic Management System, said FDOT spokeswoman Gina Busscher.
The bigger changes, she said, will happen early next year when the FDOT begins a $3 million project that will help keep motorists safe while driving with low visibility.
The project consists of the installation of three changeable message signs along the Micanopy and Gainesville corridor of I-75, Busscher said. Vehicle detectors that measure speeds to see if there’s a problem will be installed on the same poles as the current TV cameras. Sensors will also measure visibility on the road.
By the time the project is completed, she said, the detectors and sensors will be integrated into the 511 system, which drivers can call to find out road conditions. Busscher said additional cameras will be installed along U.S. 441.
FHP spokeswoman Capt. Nancy Rasmussen said her department went through internal training for handling crashes caused by smoke and fog.
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At the scene last year, Kelly recalled ASO deputies walking into the fog, calling out to people who needed help. Other deputies walked in front of ambulances, helping them navigate through the fog and wreckage.
One deputy told Kelly “it was like walking into a ‘white cloud.’”
“While they’re doing this, they could hear crashes actually occurring,” Kelly said. “All this happening around them, almost like being in a warzone.”
In his 15 years as a law enforcement officer, Kelly said the Jan. 29 crash was like nothing he’d ever seen before.
“There’s no textbook for dealing with that,” he said. “Nothing you train for prepares you for a thing like that.”
Chief Larry Stewart of Alachua County Fire Rescue felt the same.
“The unique part about this was the visibility,” he said.
The biggest issue was communication between fire rescue and law enforcement, he said. Technology that can patch radio channels together exists, which Stewart said they will use in the future to strengthen communication.
He said he feels the department is better prepared if a similar crash were to happen because it now has personnel with more experience.
“Now we can make better decisions on something that we have never really trained on or practiced or even thought of in previous incidents,” he said.
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The fog that covered the roads that January morning could happen again, said UF meteorologist Jeff Huffman.
Inter-agency communication between the forest service, FHP and FDOT has improved as well through an agreement signed Jan. 15, said Ludie Bond, wildlife mitigation specialist. In a wildfire or prescribed fire situation, the forestry service or land management agency would alert FHP, who would determine what action to take and request help from the FDOT if necessary.
“We’ve been coordinating our message points and making sure the general public is getting the most up-to-date and accurate info,” Bond said. “And that can’t help but improve safety on the highways.”
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Since the crash, the pavement on I-75 has been repaired.
But old wounds leave scars, and for Kelly, each bump and patch on the road as he drives on I-75 through Paynes Prairie is a reminder — a snapshot of the fiery crash and the emergency officials who stared danger in the face to save the lives of others.
“It’s imprinted in you,” he said. “You don’t wash it off. It’s something you live with forever.”