More accounts of the crashes on I-75
Published: Monday, January 30, 2012 at 8:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 30, 2012 at 8:47 p.m.
One day a week, friends Shelsie Bellew and Aimee Nelson travel from Ocala to Gainesville to work as bartenders.
Driving back home on U.S. 441 early Sunday morning, they found the road closed because of a vehicle crash.
Diverted off 441, they were southbound on Interstate 75 shortly after 4 a.m. when smoke from the Paynes Prairie fire engulfed Bellew's Ford Expedition.
She said she did not recall seeing any roadside signs warning of smoky conditions before she drove into the blinding haze.
"It was like a wall," she said Monday. "I thought it was just fog so I started to slow down. But once we were in it instantly you couldn't see anything. When I hit the wall of smoke I knew there was going to be an accident. I knew it was going to be bad. I thought we were going to die."
Through the soupy grey, Bellew spotted tail lights just as she ran into the back of a semi truck involved in the deadly string of crashes.
She said she collided with another vehicle, which she described as a pickup truck. A Florida Highway Patrol crash report released late Monday afternoon did not identify the make of that vehicle, which was consumed in a fire after the crash.
Fearing that more, unseen vehicles were bearing down on them, Bellew, 27, said she did not want to get out of the vehicle. But Nelson feared that their vehicle would burst into flames.
"I said, ‘I'm not getting out,' " Bellew said. "My girlfriend said, ‘We're going to burn alive if we don't get out.' "
They crawled through the back seat and onto the roadway as they heard other crashes occurring around them, Bellew said.
"We just ran," she said. "We had to hold hands and run because you couldn't see anything."
A man who had been driving north came through the smoke and used a small flashlight to lead them to refuge on the grassy median.
Bellew's sports utility vehicle was among those that burned up in the post-crash fire. But Bellew and Nelson sustained only minor injuries and did not have to be transported to the hospital.
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Hours before the string of fatal crashes, Wendy-Lin Bartels, a research associate at the University of Florida, was driving along U.S. 441 when smoke and a vehicle crash closed that roadway. She was then on I-75 when that road was closed for the first time.
In an email, she described a chaotic, dangerous scene even then, hours before the fatal crashes that claimed 10 lives.
"At around 11:30, I was headed south on U.S. 441 to Micanopy. At the massage school we were stopped and diverted by police who had flares on the road. They told us that because of a wreck on 441, we would need to take I-75," Bartels wrote.
"We took the Williston entrance and dipped into the prairie on I-75, noticing increasing amounts of smoke. Within less than a minute, several police cars came speeding past and stopped us about half a mile into the Prairie headed southbound on I-75. That was shortly before midnight.
"We saw emergency responders pass us that must have been heading to attend to the crash further down on the prairie. We spent the next three hours in our car surrounded by swirling smoke from the prairie at a police blockade."
During that time, she said, the visibility fluctuated drastically.
"There were times when all I could see were the flashing blue and red police lights in front of us engulfed in smoke. At other times it would clear and we could see the police vehicles clearly about 20 meters ahead of us, as well as some of the surrounding prairie and highway.
"At approximately 3 a.m., the wreckage from the earlier crash was cleared from I-75 and law enforcement escorted the vehicles that had been stopped at the blockade across the stretch of interstate through the prairie.
"We were just so grateful to have escaped harm from the midnight wrecks on both U.S. 441 and I-75."
As it would turn out, the deadly string of crashes had not yet begun.
Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or email@example.com.