USA — A deadly pile-up on a Florida’s Interstate 4 claimed four lives today.
Ten accidents, involving 70 vehicles, killed four people and injured 38 others. Five of them are in critical condition, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The largest of the accidents involved 43 vehicles.
Hours after multiple cars and tractor trailers slammed into one another, forcing the highway’s closure, authorities could not say when it would reopen.
Investigators continue to pick through and examine the two miles of mangled vehicles.
Miles away, Division of Forestry officials were looking into a 10-acre controlled burn that escaped firefighters, expanding to 400 acres and billowing thick smoke into the air. That smoke plus fog that rolled into the area are believed to have cut visibility for motorists along I-4 early Wednesday morning.
Polk County deputy sheriff Jack “Carlton” Turner, 26, was the first on the chaotic scene, having been dispatched at 4:54am EST.
He was met by a wall of dense fog and was soon swept into the mess. He wasn’t even able to get out of his car before his cruiser was hit multiple times. Injured, he pulled himself out and rescued victims from the wreckage.
Turner, a member of the Emergency Response and SWAT teams, described the scene to Polk Sheriff Grady Judd like this:
“I could still hear metal grinding as cars went into each other. I did all that I could but I watched a man burn to death today.”
At 5:07am, FHP troopers began to shutdown the highway – a 15-mile stretch between Tampa and Orlando.
But news of a possible problem had been brewing since the night before.
The Division of Forestry notified the FHP at 7:03pm Tuesday night of potential smoke problems from the controlled burn, as part of a formalised interagency agreement. FHP said they would monitor I-4 and close it if needed. FHP also notified the state Department of Transportation, which put out signs with flashing lights that warned of the smoke.
The National Weather Service in Melbourne, Florida this morning issued a special weather report warning commuters that visibility in the Polk County area would be down to zero because of smoke from brush fires and fog.
Throughout the day, officials disagreed about the role the smoke and fog played in the crash.
FHP Sgt Jorge Delahoz said the smoke from the fire may have had some impact, but at the time of the crash it was the fog that reduced visibility in the area. He said people were probably driving at 70 or 90 kilometres per hour or faster.
A forestry official said he would not say conclusively what caused the pileup until his investigators issued a final report, possibly in the coming week. But the official cautioned that his team could be on scene of the fire for weeks, even months.