District fire chiefs look back at Sunday's fatal crashes

Alachua County District Fire Chiefs Larry Stewart, left, and Jeff Harpe were in charge of rescue crews at the terrifying scene that unfolded on Interstate 75 early Sunday morning.

Karen Voyles/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 3:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 3:43 p.m.

Shortly after Alachua County Fire Rescue District Chief Jeff Harpe arrived early Sunday morning to the devastation shrouded in fog and smoke on Interstate 75, he had an awful choice to make.

"At one point, we had to let the trucks burn and focus on the patients," Harpe said.

"And there was a hard decision to make on where to send the big crowd of people who were not injured — out into the swamp where there are alligators or alongside the road where we could not see what the hazards were?"

District Chief Larry Stewart, who along with Harpe was in charge of directing the rescuers responding to the deadly pileup in both lanes of the freeway, had a different worry.

"My biggest fear was that I didn't know what was out there. I couldn't identify the hazards for our crews," he said.

Firefighters did not know how many semis were involved or what they were carrying. Stewart was relieved to hear back from firefighters that the trailers were rectangular because rounded trailers are often tankers carrying hazardous materials or compressed or highly flammable cargo.

For both men, each a veteran with more than a quarter century of experience, the cataclysm was their worst nightmares coming to life.

"When I drove in and reached the wall (of smoke), it was everything they had promised," Harpe said. "I couldn't see the hood of the truck.

"I didn't have the luxury of being able to see everything," he continued. "I had to drive up and decide if it was the worst thing I have ever seen. And if not, I kept driving."

Just beyond the smoke line, Stewart was staging the ambulances and fire trucks and other rescue crews who needed to get onto the freeway to help. His assignment meant keeping track of every emergency vehicle on the scene, including those from Marion County who were providing mutual aid.

"Nobody refused to go," Stewart said. "We had crews at the staging area volunteering to go next."

For anyone who wasn't there, Stewart said the way he could best explain it was this: "Take the most complicated thing you do at work. Add personal danger. Now do it with your eyes closed."

Alachua County's firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians work 24 hours on duty and then have 48 hours off. Those dispatched to the freeway for the series of crashes at 4 a.m. Sunday had already been working almost non-stop since reporting to work at 8 a.m. Saturday.

Before the emergency workers descended into the zero-visibility world of I-75 through Paynes Prairie, they had already worked on a fatal accident in High Springs; a huge brush fire in Hawthorne; and had assisted drivers who had been trapped by the smoke on the highway and on U.S. 441 before the fatal crashes began.

Harpe was the overall commander Sunday morning, supervising the work of half of the county's 12 ambulance crews along with seven fire trucks.

Stewart said there were still other calls going on around the county and they did not want to deploy all of the available resources to one place.

Some of the burden of trying to get patients to hospitals was picked up by Marion County emergency crews. They generally worked on the northbound lanes while the Alachua County crews primarily handled the southbound lanes.

"What was so strange was that there was a lot of stuff I didn't see until I was on my way back out," Harpe said.

Stewart said one of the eeriest parts of the emergency was the sound — or lack of it.

"Normally it's very loud when we are working calls on I-75, but when we were there, you could hear the explosions reverberating — echoing — across the prairie and that made it hard to judge distances."

When it was over, the emergency crews were sent home, but when they returned for the next shift on Tuesday morning, they were all assigned to attend a critical incident stress debriefing.

"Those debriefings are a way to vent," he said. "A way to decompress."

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