3 dead in 50-car pileup
Published: Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at 8:11 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at 8:11 a.m.
LAKELAND, Fla. - About 50 cars crashed Wednesday on a highway blanketed by fog and smoke from a brush fire in central Florida, and local officials said three people were killed and others were injured in the mangled, fiery wrecks.
A stretch of nearly 15 miles of Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando was closed by several accidents, including the 50-car pileup. Aerial footage showed the soupy mix of fog and smoke covering the landscape for miles and giving the sky an eerie golden color in the morning.
The poor visibility hampered rescue efforts, forcing officials to walk along the closed stretch of I-4 checking individual vehicles for injuries, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Larry Coggins said. The conditions later cleared up, showing mangled, charred trucks and cars pinned underneath some tractor trailers.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd did not release the names of the victims. He did not say how many people were injured.
Workers were still trying to rescue one man pinned beneath an overturned truck. Numerous tractor trailers overturned on the roadway, including a tanker. At least six of them burned completely.
"Everything came to a halt," said Robert Ellison, a motorist driving east on the highway about 6 a.m. "You can't see your hand in front of your face."
Ellison told The Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV that he narrowly avoided an accident and stopped to try to help trapped motorists. "There was no indication of anything. Then you couldn't see 5 feet," he said.
One of the first accident victims was a sheriff's deputy, Judd said. The deputy told Judd that conditions on the road worsened suddenly. "'It was clear, it was a little foggy, then it was total darkness,'" Judd recounted the deputy saying.
The sheriff added that although the deputy was shaken up, he helped move people to safety as vehicles continued to pile up — the sounds of metal grinding and gnashing in the darkness.
The deputy was haunted, however, by those he couldn't save. "'I watched a man burn to death today,'" Judd recounted the deputy saying afterward.
The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating the crash and the role of smoke from the fire that started as a controlled burn and grew out of control.
Judd said he was "exceptionally concerned" about the decision to start a fire during dry conditions and days after a freeze likely added more tinder. State officials are still investigating how the fire got out of control.
Since Tuesday, firefighters have battled the controlled burn that grew out of their grasp and charred 400 acres. The fire, which is burning roughly half a mile from the highway, is 90 percent contained, Division of Forestry spokeswoman Chris Kintner.
She said forestry workers notified the highway patrol that smoke from the blaze could mix with fog.
Signs warning people of the smoke were placed on the interstate, but Kintner said she did not know if the they were illuminated.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.
Comments are currently unavailable on this article