GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Hazy fog and heavy smoke from a brush fire clouded a north Florida interstate overnight, leaving drivers blinded and causing wrecks that killed at least nine people, authorities said Sunday.
Photographs taken Sunday morning showed the burned-out shells of at least two vehicles and a tractor-trailer, with gray smoke still rising above the asphalt on an otherwise desolate Interstate 75.
Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan said the pileups happened around 3:45 a.m. on both sides of I-75 south of Gainesville. All lanes of the interstate — there are three lanes running each direction — remained closed as investigators began trying to figure out exactly what caused the wrecks. Vehicles were still smoldering, and firefighters sprayed foam to try to put out the fires.
Cars appeared to have smashed into tractor-trailers and, in one case, a motor home. Some cars were badly crushed beneath the wreckage of the larger rigs.
Riordan said several people were injured and taken to Gainesville hospitals. Their conditions were unclear.
At least 18 people hurt in the wreck were being treated at Shands at the University of Florida, said hospital spokeswoman Allison Wilson.
Donna Henry told The Gainesville Sun that she was driving south on the interstate at 3:45 a.m. when she encountered the smoke.
"We just hit it, and you couldn't see anything," said Henry, who was driving with friends back home to Palm Bay. She said her car struck a guardrail and ended up sideways in the outside lane. She pulled off the highway and called 911. She told the paper that she could hear the other crashes.
"You heard like 15 times somebody hit, from this side and that, north and south. It was bad."
The FHP had briefly closed the highway before the crashes because of a mixture of fog and smoke from a marsh fire in the Paynes Prairie area south of Gainesville. Officers patrolling the highway had reopened the road when visibility improved.
Riordan said he is not sure how much time passed between the reopening of the highway and the first crash.
Riordan said this is the worst accident he's seen in his 27-year career with FHP.
Traffic is being diverted onto U.S. 301 and State Road 27, Riordan said.
Heavy fog and smoke were blamed for another serious crash four years ago. 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.
Associated Press writer Freida Frisaro contributed to this report from Miami.
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