Seven people died and at least eight more were injured, some of them critically, in a multi-vehicle crash Thursday afternoon on Interstate 75.
Two tractor-trailer rigs, a passenger van and mid-sized sedan were involved in the fiery crash in the southbound lanes at mile marker 393 north of Northwest 39th Avenue. It was reported about 3:33 p.m.
FHP Lt. Patrick Riordan said early Thursday evening that five of the accident victims who died were in the passenger van. Others from the van were hospitalized, but he did not know how many.
Another person who died was in one of the crashed tractor-trailers, but early on, Riordan didn’t know if the person killed was the driver or a passenger.
Alachua County Sheriff’s spokesman Art Forgey said dispatch records indicate one of the vehicles was a van with a group of children who were heading to Disney World.
He said the agency was working to verify that information. It appears other vehicles that had been traveling with the same group were not involved in the accident.
About 8 p.m. Thursday, northbound lanes reopened. Southbound lanes remained closed, with burnt vehicles, debris strewn across the highway and a homicide investigation underway, Riordan said. Both semis had at least their trailers burned.
Some 50 gallons of diesel fuel had spilled as well. Drivers should expect I-75′s southbound lanes to be closed until at least early Friday’s morning commute, Riordan said.
“I think it’s fair to say to your readers who use I-75 in the morning for work to plan an alternate route,” he said. “It’s a very large scene.”
The majority of the crash debris was scattered along the southbound lanes, allowing for a quicker cleanup of the northbound lanes.
Southbound traffic was diverted in Alachua. Northbound traffic was diverted at Newberry Road.
Some of the injured were taken to UF Health Shands Hospital under a trauma alert. UF Health’s emergency response mass casualty plan was activated at approximately 4:25 p.m., according to its Facebook page.
Nicole Towarek, a student at Western University student in Ontario, said she, her mother and grandmother had just stopped at the Newberry Road Starbucks Thursday while on a holiday trip from Fort Myers to Atlanta.
After getting coffee, they hopped back on I-75 and, suddenly, the scene across the roadway looked like a different world, she said.
Black smoke billowed, people were laid out near vehicles, there were long skid marks across the roadway and emergency workers just getting to the scene.
“We kept seeing these little explosions and fire,” she said. “The heat, it was insane.”
FHP handled the crash investigation with help from other agencies including the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and Alachua County Fire Rescue. A law enforcement helicopter was sent aloft to try to see if any of the injured were in the woods along the crash scene.
Hazardous materials teams were also deployed.
“There are engine parts and components, and there is a lot of area that is burned,” Riordan said. “Contamination of fuel is a high probability at this point.”
Thursday’s crash appears to be the worst in Alachua County on I-75 since nearly seven years ago, when 11 people died and more than 20 hospitalized on Jan. 29, 2012, in a fiery chain of collisions in heavy smoke and fog across Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.
Officials took heat then for not closing the interstate despite the conditions.
Eventually, cameras, sensors and large electronic message signs around Paynes Prairie were installed and designed to prevent such crashes in the future, part of a $2 million project to improve safety following the 2012 crashes.
Forgey, the sheriff’s spokesman said Thursday’s crash was “extremely severe, much more severe than what we’re used to seeing.”
But it’s the “used-to” part that’s cause for worry, he said.
“We are obviously concerned with the number of traffic accidents and fatalities we see on I-75. And when it rains, you can almost guarantee that there’s going to be an accident,” Forgey said.
“I think that drivers become complacent, are not paying attention and the speed and volumes at which they’re traveling — it just takes one little thing and you can have a major catastrophe.
“I tell my own family members to steer clear of the interstate. I see the carnage that happens out there.”