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I-75 reopens day after ''horrendous'' Florida interstate crash

12:09 PM, Jan 30, 2012   |    comments
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Smoke and several crashes closed Interstate 75 in both directions between mile markers 374 and 382 in Alachua County.


UPDATE:  The Florida Highway Patrol says all lanes of I-75 in the area where a 20 car pile up killed 10 people on Sunday, are back open.

The northbound and southbound lanes south of Gainesville were closed again after smoke caused visibility issues early Monday morning.

Photo Gallery: Alachua County Pileup

Smoke from a nearby brushfire, combined with fog, resulted in such poor visibility early Sunday morning, that drivers involved in the pile-up say they could not see their hands if they stretched out their arms.

The pile up happened shortly after the road was re-opened from an earlier closure because of poor visibility.

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the brush fire, including the possibility that it was sparked by an arsonist.

Earlier Report:

(CNN) -- After the crashes stopped, Steven Camps said all he could hear was the sound of crying as the air, heavy with smoke, shone red from vehicle fires.

He pulled his friend from their car, which wound up wedged between two semi trucks. The two were lying in the grassy median of Interstate 75, he said, praying that a car would not leave the roadway and hit them.

The vehicle Camps was riding in was among those involved in a series of overnight accidents in northern Florida, blamed on poor visibility from smoke from a nearby brush fire, authorities said. Ten people were killed in the crashes, which the Florida Highway Patrol said involved at least 12 passenger cars and about seven semi trucks.

Most of the collisions were on Interstate 75, said Alachua County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Todd Kelly. Crashes also occurred on U.S. Highway 441.

The interstate's northbound and southbound lanes remained closed Sunday afternoon, and would stay closed until the roadways are cleared, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Traffic was being detoured.

Late Sunday, the National Weather Service in Jacksonville issued a dense smoke advisory, which will remain in effect until 8 a.m. ET on Monday. Smoke from nearby fires will cut visibility to less than a mile in some places, it said.

Camps said he was returning to Gainesville, Florida, from Micanopy, about 12 miles away, with a friend early Sunday on I-75 northbound when traffic came to a stop on the interstate in what looked like heavy fog.

"It was just so crazy," he said. "We were just sitting in the car and all of this came out of nowhere."

Camps, a passenger in the car, said they were talking to a man in a stopped car in the next lane about the low visibility when they began hearing crashes as cars were struck from behind.

The car next to them "literally almost went under (a) semi truck," he said. "We saw that guy die after talking to him before we could even react."

He said the car he was riding in was then struck twice, effectively wedging it between two semi trucks. He was not hurt badly, but his friend could "barely even move," he said. Camps helped pull him from the car onto the median.

"As it was happening on the northbound side, it was happening on the southbound side as well," he said. "There was nowhere to go. It was just cars hitting cars and cars."

He called the scene "horrendous."

"Everybody was crying," he said. "You still can't see anything." Some motorists were stuck in their vehicles, he said, calling it "mass chaos."

Camps said he received stitches in his leg and was released from a hospital. He said his friend was still hospitalized but may be released soon. He said he was "blessed" -- "If you saw the car, you'd be like, 'How did you live?'"

The crashes occurred between 11:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 a.m. Sunday in the same areas, Kelly said. A responding officer reported visibility was virtually zero, he said.

Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, received a total of 18 patients, said Dr. Timothy Flynn, chief medical officer. Of those, six were "trauma alert" patients who remained in the hospital's intensive care unit Sunday, he said.

Eight of the remaining 12 were treated and released, he said, while four others remained hospitalized for observation. The hospital, a Level 1 trauma center, activated its trauma alert system about 5:30 a.m., calling in additional staff, Flynn said.

Other patients were taken to another local hospital, the Highway Patrol said.

A dozen or more vehicles were involved in the crashes, Kelly said, describing the scene as "pure chaos" and the worst he has seen in his 14 years of service.

The smoke is from a brush fire at the nearby Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, he said. Darkness was also thought to be a "contributing factor" in the crashes, Kelly said.

Calls from CNN to the Florida Highway Patrol were not immediately returned Sunday, but the Gainesville Sun newspaper reported that both I-75 and U.S. 441 had been closed because of low visibility -- and then reopened -- before the crashes occurred.

"Actually the road had been closed earlier in the morning," Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan told the newspaper. "It was assessed; conditions improved to a point where the road was reopened. These occurred after we reopened the road." Road conditions were being monitored, he said.

Riordan told CNN in an e-mail he did not have a timeline for when roads were closed and reopened, but did not provide further details.

CNN's Rich Porter, Ashley Hayes and Jacqui Jeras contributed to this report.

Florida Highway Patrol

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