The I-75 crash - of 1983


In this Feb. 28, 1983 file photo, firefighters hose down the wreckage of a pileup on Interstate 75.

Star-Banner File
Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 2:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 2:53 p.m.

Nearly 29 years ago, a 22-car pileup in Ocala along Interstate 75 killed five people and injured 36, including three local rescuers during an explosion. Like in Sunday's deadly crash on I-75 along Paynes Prairie, which killed 11, the cause of the 1983 tragedy was mostly smoke from a wildfire.

Facts

ABOUT THIS STORY

Nearly 29 years ago, a 22-car pile up in Ocala along Interstate 75 killed five people and injured 36, including three local rescuers during an explosion. Like in last weekend's deadly crash on I-75 along Paynes Prairie, which killed 11, the cause of the 1983 tragedy was mostly smoke from a wildfire. This story uses information from old Star-Banner stories, as well as state and federal government reports.

It was 2:07 p.m. on Feb. 28, 1983, when a picture-perfect day turned to mayhem in a split-second.

Back then, Harvey Armstrong was a six-year Ocala police veteran — a proud corporal, newlywed and soon-to-be first-time father. That day he was assisting the Florida Highway Patrol on I-75 with an overturned vehicle.



About three miles north, a Howard Johnson Motor Lodge employee watched as an unknown driver, who was exiting off I-75, tossed a cigarette onto the dry grass just north of U.S. 27.

The grass immediately caught fire and spread rapidly, according to a 1983 Marion County Civil Preparedness Agency report. The employee immediately called the Marion County Fire Department.

As smoke billowed from the fire, winds shifted and the blinding smoke streamed along the southbound lanes. Seeing the smoke to the north, Armstrong jumped into his patrol car and headed that way.

Just as Armstrong arrived at the wall of smoke, he could hear crushing metal, the sound of southbound vehicles slamming into one another just north of the U.S. 27 overpass.

There were 22 vehicles involved, including a lumber truck and a horse trailer. Fourteen would later catch fire. Once the smoke had cleared, five were dead and 36 were injured.

In October 1983, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report about factors involved in that pileup.

As it turned out, drivers could see the smoke two miles away as they headed southbound on I-75. As they got closer and closer, they continued heading toward the smoke. Most drivers thought they would be blinded only for a second.

"Approaching drivers had a clear view of the smoke for over two miles before entering the smoke, but they responded with diverse assumptions and drove into, and through, the smoke at wide range of speeds," the report stated.

The NTSB further reported that vehicle fuel tanks were breached, leading to a gasoline-fed fire and explosion. It ruled that drivers failed to use proper judgment when driving into the smoke.

"Contributing to the severity of the accident was the breach of fuel system integrity in a number of vehicles and the resultant vehicle fires," the report states.

NTSB urged a complete review of fuel systems on all vehicles to see if there is a better design from an engineering standpoint "to reduce breaches of the fuel systems and to minimize fuel spillage."

It urged more high-speed impact studies be conducted.

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