USA — Friends Steven Camps II and James McGill were heading home from Micanopy to Gainesville when they came to the end of the world.
Cruising northward on Interstate 75, they descended into the bowl of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and hit a wall of fog and smoke. McGill, driving a 1993 Toyota Camry, stopped in the road. Within seconds, Camps said, they heard cars and trucks crashing.
It looked like the end of the world, said Camps, 22, a Santa Fe College student.
For 11 people, it was.
Those 11 died on Jan. 29 in what was the deadliest chain of crashes in Alachua County in recent memory if not in its history. Many more were injured 20 were taken to hospitals, while others had minor injuries treated at the scene.
Drivers and passengers who survived described a hellish scene of fire and helplessness. Florida Highway Patrol troopers, fire-rescue crews and Alachua County sheriff’s deputies said they had never seen anything like it.
This has been one of those incidents that, if you encounter one, you hope you only encounter one in a career, Alachua County Fire Rescue Director Ed Bailey said.
The first crash in the half-mile length of I-75 on the southern part of the prairie was reported at 4 a.m., but the pending tragedy really began Saturday afternoon with a seemingly innocuous brush fire about 800 yards to the east, just off U.S. 441.
Attracting onlookers who were crossing the prairie on 441, the blaze grew to about 60 acres before crews were able to plow a line around it to prevent the fire from spreading.
Still, firefighters said that night as they corralled the blaze that it would continue to smolder and, given the weather conditions, could settle a layer of smoke and fog in the prairie basin.
The Florida Department of Transportation said it posted yellow warning signs on both ends of the prairie on U.S. 441 and Interstate 75. FHP said it had at least one trooper patrolling in the area, monitoring the situation.
Sure enough, as it neared midnight the area fogged over, and accidents were reported.
At 11:53:14, a caller to 911 reported heavy smoke in the middle of Paynes Prairie. A fraction of a second later, another caller reported hearing accidents. Then a caller saw accidents. And then came a call that traffic was stopped on I-75.
Those accidents none of them fatal prompted the closure of I-75 along the prairie. Deputies began blocking traffic at the southbound rest area at 12:08 a.m., and FHP directed the interstate to remain closed at 12:45, according to the Alachua County Combined Communications Center.
The interstate remained closed until about 3:21 a.m., when the decision was made to reopen it.
Fog, smoke return
At 4:01 a.m., Shelise Ballew was driving her 2004 Ford Expedition toward Ocala with a friend, Aimee Nelson. The two work as bartenders in Gainesville and were heading home for the night.
They got only as far as Paynes Prairie.
It was like a wall, Ballew said. I thought it was just fog, so I started to slow down. But once we were in it, instantly you couldn’t see anything. When I hit the wall of smoke, I knew there was going to be an accident. I knew it was going to be bad. I thought we were going to die.
FHP reported that Ballew hit the back of a pickup that had hit the back of a semi that had stopped in the right lane. Ballew and Nelson scrambled out the back of the Expedition, which was incinerated shortly after.
By this time, Alachua County’s Combined Communications Center was getting frantic calls regarding I-75.
Troopers, deputies and fire-rescue began racing there, and faced the same hazards.
When I drove in and reached the wall (of smoke), it was everything they had promised, ACFR District Chief Jeff Harpe said. I couldn’t see the hood of the truck. I didn’t have the luxury of being able to see everything.
In the northbound lanes, two vans were traveling back to Marietta, Ga., after attending a conference in Orlando.
In one, a 2012 Dodge Caravan, was the pastor of a church for Brazilian immigrants and his family. The Caravan hit the back left side of a semi trailer.
A photo taken by The Sun shows that metal from the semi’s rear corner frame sliced through the Caravan’s driver compartment and into the passenger section.
Five family members died: Jose Carmo, 43, the pastor; his wife, Adrianna, 39; their daughter Leticia, 17; his brother, Edson Carmo, 38; and Edson’s fiancee, Roselia DeSilva, 41. Surviving the crash was Jose Carmo’s daughter, Lidiane Carmo, 15, who was listed in fair condition Saturday at Shands at the University of Florida.
Several more church members were in the second van, and all in that van survived the crash.
At the front of the truck hit by Edson Carmo, a 2005 Toyota Matrix was sandwiched between the cab and the rear of another semi. Killed were the driver, Jason Lee Raikes, 26, a systems engineer in Richmond, Va., and his girlfriend, Christie Nguyen, 27, a Santa Fe College student and 2010 UF graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies.
Meanwhile, in the southbound lane, Michael Hughes, 39, his wife, Lori Hughes, 46, and Michael’s daughter, Sabryna Hughes Gilley, 17, all of Pensacola, were in a 2001 Dodge pickup. They were heading to Sarasota for a funeral.
Ahead of them, a semi had stopped in the right lane. Michael Hughes slammed into the back of the semi. Ballew then plowed into Hughes’ pickup.
All three vehicles burned, except the decoupled cab on the semi. The Hughes family died.
Nearby, another semi had stopped in the middle lane. Richard Szabados, 39, of Silver Springs, hit the semi from behind. He got out of his 2008 Dodge pickup and had only minor injuries.
Vontavia Robinson, 22, of Williston, who had been bowling with his brother, drove into Szabados’ pickup. The force of the impact lifted the pickup on top of Robinson’s 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix.
The car, pickup and semi trailer burned. Robinson died.
Other cars collided with semis or guardrails, or ran off the road. Drivers and passengers who survived were trapped on I-75 for several hours, while crews transported the more seriously injured to hospitals and bodies were recovered.
Given the twisted condition of some vehicles, FHP said the death toll could have been higher but for the cars being newer models with improved impact protection.
Now, agencies from FHP to the National Weather Service are examining their actions that night to figure out if they could have done anything differently to prevent the tragedy, or at least lessen it.
FHP is continuing to investigate the crashes. Several FHP homicide investigators were called to the scene to begin piecing together evidence to learn in more detail about the crashes that unfolded. The agency said the investigation could take months to complete.
One factor in the investigation will be why two southbound tractor-trailer drivers came to a stop in their lanes as opposed to pulling off to the side of the interstate.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott has instructed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate events leading up to the crashes. FDLE spokesman Keith Kameg did not have an estimated completion date.
One key issue is the decision by Lt. John Gourley to reopen the interstate before the fatal wrecks.
He is feeling a little bit of heat, FHP Lt. Pat Riordan said. We had a three-hour window that we waited to evaluate the conditions on the road before we opened it up. Three hours is a long time. He made the decision to open the roadway, and approximately 45 minutes later, the collisions occurred.
FHP has policies and protocols that include checklists on major road closures and smoke/fog incidents.
The checklists include notification to upper supervisors and local law enforcement agencies, the creation of detour routes, staffing and obtaining spot weather forecasts, and identifying current or overnight LVORI Low Visibility Occurrence Risk Index levels. The LVORI gauges the probability of visibility restrictions from fog or smoke based on weather conditions on a scale of one to 10, with 10 the highest probability.
Steve Letro, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, said the agency did not receive any calls or emails from FHP the night of the accidents.
Letro said his staff might not have been able to provide any useful information anyway. Letro said the Paynes Prairie fire was too small to produce any measurable smoke in Jacksonville and that the effects of the smoke were extremely localized.
What happened with the crash was such a very, very small localized place. You can have one person standing on the road and another person a mile down the road, and in situations like they had that night, you could easily have fine visibility where they were but there was a half-mile stretch in the middle where it’s down on the deck, Letro said. We really don’t have much of anything, forecast-wise, that deals with something like that. Honestly, I don’t know what we could have done. We’ve been going over this in our heads for three or four days.