GAINESVILLE,None - Witnesses to a deadly Interstate 75 pileup near Gainesville called 911, describing a series of crashes and the sound of an explosion.
The devastating I-75 incident started as an afternoon wildfire that had hours to smolder and set the stage for a deadly combination of high-speed, thick smoke and terrified drivers.
Authorities said when the smoke cleared, 10 people were dead and another 18 were injured.
Officials said 19 vehicles, including seven semi-tractor trailers collided.
Lt. Patrick Riordan said Monday in a news conference that troopers did their "due diligence" before a sergeant and lieutenant decided to reopen the road. He said drivers have to be alert and be prepared to make good judgments.
At 2:45 p.m. on Saturday, a 911 caller reported a wildfire at Payne's Prairie State Preserve.
Authorities said the fire was contained at 7:42 p.m., but still burned underground.
Less than four hours later, at 11: 31 p.m., a nearby four-car crash closed US-441.
Then, at 11:51 p.m., a multi-car crash closed I-75, officials said.
According to deputy transmissions, conditions remained dangerous, but started to die down after 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, and I-75 reopened at 3:21 a.m.
The deadly pileup happened 40 minutes later.
Drivers on I-75 faced a wall of gray smoke and fog.
"I can't see anything. It's so dense, the fog is so dense and we just hit a guardrail and I think there was another accident behind us because I heard it," said a 911 caller.
A woman, whose name was not released, made the first 911 call.
"Another accident! Oh my God!" she said to the operator.
"What just happened? Tell me what happened," the operator said.
"Another accident, another accident! Going northbound!" the woman said.
People calling for help described hearing explosions while 19 cars and seven semi-tractor trailers crashed into each other in the darkness.
"We can't see! We cannot see! It's like impossible to see. The haze…is, um, like the smoke, is like very thick. You can probably see only your hand in front," another 911 caller told an operator.
According to records that WFTV found, the calls were not the first time authorities were hearing about the conditions.
WFTV looked through dozens of pages of radio transmissions and police records, and found out the Division of Forestry alerted the Florida Highway Patrol about smoke from a nearby brushfire at 8:09 p.m. on Saturday.
By 11:53 p.m. records show troopers shut down I-75 because of a wreck, but it was allowed to reopen at 3:21 a.m. on Sunday.
But the decision to reopen the road ended in disaster.
One woman who called 911 said, "Oh my God," while she was sobbing.
"Do you see any patients? Is there anybody injured that you can see?" the operator asked.
"There's a lot of people laying down on the floor," the woman said as she sobbed.
Payne's Prairie is the state's first and oldest wildlife preserve, located along US-441 in Alachua County.
Dozens of firefighters were spread out over 62 scorched acres of the preserve.
Fire investigators said they are trying to figure out what caused the blaze.
"The two things that have been ruled out though are prescribed burning. There were no controlled burns. We know it wasn't that, and it wasn't from lightning," said Ludie Bond of the Florida Forest Service.
Firefighters set up a large string of heavy-duty sprinklers, constantly spraying back and forth along the western edge of the burn.
Even though I-75, where the crashes happened, was more than a mile away, it was too close for the combination of the smoke, fog and darkness during the early hours of Sunday morning.
"It sinks down low. It becomes very dense and thick when it mixes with fog, smoke does. And it becomes very wet and tough to see in, and it finds low lying areas and hugs the ground," Bond said.
The Forest Service said the last fire in Payne's Prairie happened four months ago and was very small.
Meanwhile, all that remained of the deadly I-75 pileup on Monday were orange chalk outlines drawn on the pavement by recovery crews working their way through the smashed vehicles to find the victims.
WFTV learned that one young girl lost her entire family in the crash.
A pastor, his wife and one of their daughters, a junior in high school, were among those killed in the crash, along with two other church members.
Authorities said the pastor's other daughter, a high school freshman, is in critical condition at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida.
"Her sister-in-law said, 'Just start praying because the extent was really bad and they were so scared," said Rosanna Alves, family friend.
The hospital said the close proximity to the crash helped save some of the victims' lives.
Gov. Rick Scott released a statement saying, "Following this weekend’s tragic automobile accident on Interstate 75 in Alachua County, I have asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the circumstances leading up to this incident. I will make available any and all resources from the Executive Office of the Governor, as well as any agency under my supervision, as needed. We will also fully cooperate with any federal investigation which may occur. During this tragic time, our thoughts and prayers should be with the victims and their families."
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