Fla. highway reopened minutes before deadly crash

Alachua County Sheriff’s Office via Associated Press
Rescue workers responded Sunday to the deadly crash on Interstate 75 in Gainesville.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Minutes before two pileups killed 10 people on a highway shrouded in fog and thick smoke from a brush fire, the Florida Highway Patrol had reopened the always busy six-lane interstate after an earlier serious accident.

A sergeant and lieutenant determined after about three hours that conditions had cleared enough for drivers, but visibility quickly became murky again, officials said yesterday.

“We went through the area. We made an assessment. We came to the conclusion that the road was safe to travel and that is when we opened the road up,’’ Lieutenant Patrick Riordan, a highway patrol spokesman, said in a news conference. “Drivers have to recognize that the environment changes. They have to be prepared to make good judgments.’’

At least a dozen cars, six tractor-trailers, and a motor home collided at about 3:45 a.m. Sunday. Some cars were crushed under big rigs. Others burst into flames and sent metal shrapnel flying through the air, horrifying witnesses along Interstate 75 who made calls to 911. Eighteen survivors were hospitalized.

In a 911 recording released yesterday, a driver and her passengers told a dispatcher that the fog and smoke from the 62-acre brush fire were so thick they could not see.

“I think there was another accident behind us because I heard it,’’ a woman said. “Oh my gosh, it’s so dark here.’’

Late yesterday, the highway patrol said seven people - including five occupants of one minivan - died and at least 16 people were injured after 10 vehicles crashed in the first of two multiple-vehicle pileups along I-75.

Riordan declined to release the names of the two troopers who made the decision or provide details on how long they had been with the patrol.

He said no troopers have been disciplined but the investigation into the crash continues.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said yesterday they are sending investigators to the scene. Governor Rick Scott also called for an investigation.

The Florida Forest Service said it still had not determined if the brush fire was intentionally set or accidental, although lightning has been ruled out.

Spokeswoman Ludie Bond said the fire was contained but still burning. Firefighters are spraying water around its perimeter attempting to reduce the smoke.