Rerouted traffic continuing to trek slowly through area

Interstate 75 northbound traffic travels east on County Road 318 in Marion County following a multi-car pile up that closed I-75 from the Irvine/Orange Lake exit all the way to Archer Road in Alachua County on Sunday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 1:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 1:55 p.m.

Suzannne Gotro huddled over a map Sunday morning at a Williston Road gas station with Ruth Cook of Nashville, dispensing directions around the blockade on Interstate 75.

It was a scene that unfolded Sunday around Gainesville as people found themselves blocked from the main artery through North Central Florida.

The interstate and U.S. 441 were both closed in the early morning hours after smoke from a wildfire on Paynes Prairie severely reduced visibility, resulting in crashes on both highways. On I-75, at least nine people were killed and 18 injured in crashes involving about 20 vehicles.

Traffic was routed through U.S. 301 in Hawthorne and U.S. 27 in Williston until authorities reopened 441 at about 11 a.m.

Still, Gainesville remained congested around the I-75 exit at Williston Road and the intersection of Williston and Southwest 13th Street, the name for 441 through Gainesville.

The Cooks were heading to their Florida home in Estero, but the closure found them in unfamiliar territory.

“As long as we can follow the interstate, we're fine,” Ruth Cook said.

George Cook said the inconvenience was minor.

“We're retired so it don't matter when we get there,” he said.

Gainesville Police Lt. Whitney Scout said traffic along Williston Road near the interstate was very congested, although no minor accidents had been reported as of 10 a.m.

“If they can divert at the north end of town and head east or west, I would definitely ask them to do that,” she said. “There's a huge amount of congestion all along Williston.”

By comparison, Scout said, Archer Road seemed to have the typical amount of traffic.

“We're telling them it's going to take a long time today (to get to Ocala),” she said.

At noon, 441 looked like an interstate itself, with a stream of semitrailers, RVs and out-of-state vehicles heading north and south to get back to I-75.

Observing the detour at 441 and Williston Road, Alachua County Sheriff's Sgt. Cory Hanson said that while traffic was heavy, there seemed to be few issues.

“For the most part, everything seems to be running smoothly,” Hanson said.

Jackie Pittman, assistant manager at the Kangaroo gas station at U.S. 441 and Williston Road, said she spent much of Sunday morning directing customers around the blockade.

One man walked in and asked for directions to get to work in Ocala.

“I've heard four casualties, eight casualties, then 16,” she said.

Just across the street, Alachua County Sheriff's Office deputies had the intersection blocked with vehicles and emergency sticks but seemed to let a few vehicles through.

Pittman said some customers were frustrated because they lived just a few miles south. They reported that deputies allowed them to pass through the blockade to return home.

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