Posted: Jan 31, 2012 4:53 AM by AP
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - The Florida Highway Patrol said Monday that conditions were clear enough when they decided to reopen the interstate highway where 10 people later were killed in two deadly pileups amid thick smoke from a 62-acre brushfire and fog.
"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," highway patrol spokesman Lt. Patrick Riordan said in a news conference.
Yet after the highway reopened early Sunday morning, visibility along that section of Interstate 75 near Gainesville quickly began to deteriorate, Riordan said. The crashes began shortly after.
"Factors changed quickly," Riordan said. "Drivers have to recognize that the environment changes. They have to be prepared to make good judgments."
At least a dozen cars and six tractor-trailers were involved, some vehicles burst into flames. Three bodies were so badly burned they haven't been identified yet, he said. No names of victims have been released pending notification of relatives, Riordan said.
When asked about why the highway was reopened with the brushfire still burning, Riordan said: "I'm not going to play a what-if situation."
Survivors said they couldn't see more than a few feet ahead of them. When rescuers first arrived to the crashes, they could only listen for screams and moans because the poor visibility made it difficult to find victims in wreckage that was strewn for nearly a mile.
About midnight Sunday, the highway patrol closed the section of I-75 for more than three hours after a pileup happened when the highway became impassable from fog and smoke from the nearby brushfire.
Troopers inspected the highway before a sergeant and lieutenant made the decision to reopen I-75 about 3:30 a.m., he said. Fifteen minutes later, the fatal pileups began on both the north and southbound sides of the highway.
Riordan declined to release the two troopers' names or provide details on their careers with the highway patrol. He said no troopers have been disciplined but the investigation into the crash continues. National Transportation Safety Board officials said Monday they are sending investigators to the scene. They also will assess whether the NTSB should formally join the probe, which is being led by the highway patrol.
In a 911 recording released Monday, a driver and her passengers told a dispatcher that the fog and smoke was so thick they couldn't see.
"I think there was another accident behind us because I heard it," the woman said. "Oh my gosh, it's so dark here."
Another caller then took the phone, screaming an expletive as she hears another crash.
"That was a truck. We cannot see. It's like impossible to see," the caller said. "The smoke is very thick you can see obviously only your hand in front. I do hear an ambulance or police officer coming down the road."
Hours later, twisted, burned-out vehicles were scattered across the pavement, with smoke still rising from the wreckage. Cars appeared to have smashed into the big rigs and, in one case, a motor home. Some cars were crushed beneath the heavier trucks.
Reporters who were allowed to view the site saw bodies still inside a burned-out Grand Prix. One tractor-trailer was burned down to its skeleton, charred pages of books and magazines in its cargo area. And the tires of every vehicle had burned away, leaving only steel belts.
The Florida Forest Service said Monday it still had not determined if the fire was intentionally set or accidental, although lightning has been ruled out. Spokeswoman Ludie Bond said the fire is contained but was still burning. Firefighters are spraying water around its perimeter attempting to reduce the smoke.
Criminal defense attorneys said that if the fire was caused by arson, authorities likely will file charges of manslaughter and possibly felony murder, which is defined as a death that happens as result of participating in a felony.
"You can bet they will be," said Brian Tannebaum, a former president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense