4 dead, 38 injured in string of pileups
On a rural stretch of Interstate 4 in Polk County, a man cried out, seeking help for his injured wife. Another begged to be pulled from his car. One shouted that he was on fire.
Other stunned survivors emerged from the wreckage into dense fog, flames and darkness, surrounded by the screams of people they could not see.
"Is this really happening? Is this really going on, or is it a bad dream?" wondered Eduardo Donoso, 55, of St. Petersburg.
Morning commuters, truckers and others were all caught Wednesday in a nightmare: a series of pileups that involved 70 vehicles and spanned two miles of highway between Orlando and Lakeland. Four were killed and 38 injured, five critically.
Many questions remain in the wake of the tragedy, including precisely what caused it and whether anything could have been done to prevent it.
FHP Maj. Ernie Duarte, the agency's chief spokesman in Tallahassee, contended the pileups were simply the result of bad weather and unsafe driving.
"We can't control the weather, but we can control our accelerator," he said. "These people didn't slow down."
But weather officials had predicted that fog would descend on the area early Wednesday, and state Division of Forestry officials had warned Tuesday night that smoke from a prescribed burn that got out of control might impair visibility. First reports of the crashes began coming in about 4:30 a.m. For the next couple of hours, one crash after the next -- 10 in all -- was called in to authorities.
The trail of twisted metal, burnt-out tractor-trailers and injured included one crash involving 43 vehicles. Two vehicles that crashed were U.S. Postal Service trucks carrying mail.
As the pileups continued, confused drivers and passengers exited their cars and walked onto I-4 -- where they were even more vulnerable to injury.
One victim was Disney worker
Darren Scott Snyder was on his way to work at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom when he got caught in a pileup and died, said his father-in-law, Don Ussery.
Snyder, a 35-year-old newlywed, worked with engineering services on the maintenance team, Disney officials confirmed late Wednesday. Family members said he was supposed to report to work at 6 a.m.
It took the family hours to get answers. Mary Ussery, Snyder's mother-in-law, said she and her daughter thought they saw Snyder's mangled red Ford Mustang under a truck in a TV newscast.
As darkness fell, Snyder's brother drove to the scene, where troopers told him that Snyder likely died in the crash.
"His body was burned beyond recognition, and [FHP] never gave him [Snyder's brother] definite word, but we knew it was him," Mary Ussery said through tears. "No one has to tell you those things."
As of Wednesday night, authorities had not officially identified Snyder or any of the other fatalities.
Those who survived said that within moments, light fog on I-4 turned into impenetrable haze.
"All of a sudden it was like a wall of smoke and fog," said electronic technician Robert Barnes, 58, of Lakeland, who was commuting to Longwood. He didn't see a small truck in front of him until he hit it. Something else hit him from the side.
"I heard what sounded like explosions in front of me. I could not see lights. I could not see flames," Barnes said. He grabbed his briefcase, cell phone and jacket and fled the road.
Donoso, the St. Petersburg man, awoke just as the Ford Taurus he was in began to crash.
"I heard another boom and another one and another one. I looked back -- there was this trailer that was practically bent halfway," Donoso said. "And that was what kept us from being hit from behind."
The smell of diesel fuel and smoke filled the air. The fog was so thick that lights from rescue vehicles were invisible, said Max Sons, 64, of Polk City, who lives less than a mile from the crash site and rushed to a highway overpass when he heard explosions. Sons didn't hear the typical sounds of a car crash.
"You didn't hear tires screeching. It was just crunch, crunch, crunch," Sons said.
Deputy Sheriff Jack "Carlton" Turner III, 26, was first on the scene, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said. Turner's car was struck as he responded but, injured, Turner worked to pull victims from the wreckage and tried to clear the scene.
"He said, 'I could still hear metal grinding as cars went into each other,' " Judd said at an afternoon news conference, adding that Turner said, " 'I did all that I could, but I watched a man burn to death today.' "
Smashed vehicles numbered
As emergency responders descended on the scene, they faced more than a traffic disaster.
Their already difficult jobs were made more untenable by the thick fog mingled with smoke -- not just from the brush fire, but from the many vehicle fires that were raging.
There were so many vehicles involved that law enforcement and rescue workers had to number them with orange spray paint, much as they marked houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Barnes said his 1999 Subaru station wagon was No. 27 in the largest of the 10 pileups. His first thought was to get out of his car to avoid getting hit again. He couldn't see in front of him but used a flashlight on his key chain to find a way out.
As the sun rose, officials and other got the first look at the tangle of crushed tractor-trailers and crash victims. It was hours after the initial crash that the fog lifted enough to allow helicopters in the air to survey the area.
It took so long to work the crash scene that deputies loaned cell phones to stranded victims so they could call loved ones.
One Polk deputy handed his cell phone to a severely injured man trapped in his car under a truck. The man was able to call his wife as crews worked to free him, Judd said. A Sheriff's Office chaplain and victim advocate arrived to work with family members and victims.
Uninjured motorists were taken to a sheriff's district station and given food and drinks while being interviewed.
The last victim, who did not survive, was found about 4 p.m.
Multiple hospitals opened their emergency rooms to casualties Wednesday morning as the 38 injured were transported to various facilities from Tampa to Orlando.
Three were airlifted to Orlando Regional Medical Center, but their identities and conditions were not available Wednesday night.
Eight patients, most with "fairly serious" injuries -- two in critical condition -- were brought to Lakeland Regional Medical Center's trauma unit, which serves Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties. Fourteen less-seriously hurt patients were taken to nearby Winter Haven Hospital, and four to Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center in Davenport. Two seriously injured people were airlifted to Tampa General Hospital.
Polk County Emergency Medical Services Director Harvey Craven said that in 35 years, he had never seen an accident of that magnitude.
"To tell you the truth, it was absolutely horrific."
Illustration: PHOTO: Fog and smoke hang over the scene Wednesday of multiple crashes involving 70 vehicles that closed part of I-4 in Polk County. First reports of the crashes came in about 4:30 a.m.
RED HUBER/ORLANDO SENTINEL
PHOTO: Traffic backs up Wednesday east of Clermont on S.R. 50, an alternate route after part of I-4 was closed.
GEORGE SKENE/ORLANDO SENTINEL
PHOTO: Emergency vehicles, law enforcement and others work at the scene Wednesday of a 70-vehicle chain-reaction collision that forced the closure of about 14 miles of Interstate 4 in Polk County.
RED HUBER/ORLANDO SENTINEL
PHOTO: Wreckage smolders Wednesday at the scene of a pileup where 70 vehicles collided near an I-4 rest stop close to Polk City.
GEORGE SKENE/ORLANDO SENTINEL
MAP: WHERE THE CRASHES HAPPENED
(map of I-4 in Polk County)
MAP: (alternate routes to I-4 in crash area)
SOURCE: POLK COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
SHINIKO R. FLOYD/ORLANDO SENTINEL
MAP: DEADLY PILEUPS IN FLORIDA
(STATE OF FLORIDA MAP, WITH 5 SPECIFIC AREAS HIGHLIGHTED WHERE DEADLY CRASHES TOOK PLACE)
SHINIKO R. FLOYD/ORLANDO SENTINEL
BOX: ALTERNATE ROUTES IN FOUR CORNERS AREA
As the crash investigation continues and road repairs begin, the commute on or around Interstate 4 in Polk County could turn into a tangled mess. Authorities were unsure when the affected stretch of I-4 would reopen.
Motorists who need to head that way should be aware that there will bee a lot of confused drivers out there today. Give yourself plenty of time to get through the crowded alternate routes, and remember: Any ligering smoke or fog will only make things worse.
-Two ways to avoid the affected portion of I-4 include taking U.S. Highway 27 or State Road 33 to head north or south.
-If driving from the southern part of Orlando, ou can try U.S. 17-92, which will take you to Lakeland, where you get to I-4.
In addition, the Polk County Sheriff's Office and Florida Highway Patrol offer the following suggestions as alternatives: -If coming from northern Orange County and heading west, use S.R. 50.
-If driving in central Polk, use U.S. 17-92 and be aware that the road will be packed.
-If driving in the southern part of Polk, use S.R. 60.
BOX: "You could hear the metal. And unlike in other crashes, you didn't hear tires screeching. It was just crunch, crunch, crunch."
MAX SONS OF POLK CITY, AWAKENED BY THE SOUNDS OF THE MASSIVE PILEUPS.
'I heard things starting to explode over there. Somebody said they were on fire, and I tried to get as far off the road as I could."
Robert Barnes of Lakeland, who was going to workin Longwood at 5:30a.m.. hit dense fog and ended up in the I-4 pileups.
"He discovered that there was a great amount of fire. And he witnessed that. And it was difficult on him. But he did what he was trained to do. And we're really proud of him."
-Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd referring to Deputy Carlton Turner, the first law-enforcement officer on the scene, whose car was demolished by the crash.
"Who gave permission to burn a fire when they knew it was going to be foggy? That's what you need to be asking...Don't blame it on God; blame it on man."
-Gayle Brazzell of Auburndale, standing outside Lakeland Regional Medical Center, where eight crash victims were taken.
"We're not at liberty to say exactly that smoke caused this accident. I'm real reluctant...to say it was smoke-related."
-Gary Zipperer, a district manager at the Division of Forestry which OK'd the initial 10-acre burn.
BOX: DEADLY PILEUPS IN FLORIDA
Here are some other recent deadly crashes in Florida blamed on smoke and fog:
1. March 13, 2007: 5 killed, 3 injured during 11-vehicle pileup on Florida's Turnpike in Osceola County near Kenansville.
2. May 7, 2006: 2 killed and 2 injured during 5-vehicle crash on I-95 in Brevard County near Port St. John.
3. May 28, 2001: 1 killed, 14 injured in 20-vehicle pileup on I-4 in Polk County near Haines City.
4. June 2, 2000: 1 killed, 12 injured druing 14-vehicle pileup on I-95 in Brevard County near S.R. 520.
5. March 8, 2000: 3 killed, 21 injured during 22-vehicle pileup on I-10 near Lake City.
BOX: HOW FOG FORMS
Radiation fog forms from the cooling of land after sunset by thermal radiation in calm conditions with clear sky; cool ground produces condensation in the air by heat conduction.
BOX: WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER SMKOE, FOG
The fire that began as a prescribed burn in Polk near the crash scene is still burning, though nearly contained. The National Weather Service issued an advisory late Wednesday warning that the same conditions -- dense fog and smoke -- that were in the area before the crash are expected to return this morning.
The weather service reported that calm winds and a strong inversion layer will not allow the smoke to disperse as it does during daylight. Smoke is also ideal condensation nuclei for dense fog to form.
Visibility near the crash site is expected to be near zero at 3 a.m. today and is not expected to improve until temperatures climb and the incersion breaks about 10 a.m., allowing fog to life and smoke to disperse.
If driving is necessary in smoke or fog, please use the following tips.
- Slow down before you enter smoke. Be sure that you can stop within the distance that you can see. Smoke creates a visual illusion of slow motion when you may actually be speeding.
- Watch out for slow-moving and parked vehicles. Listen for traffic you cannot see.
- Be patient. Avoid passing and changing lanes.
-Reduce distractions. Turn off the radio and cell phone.
- Use the road's right edge or painted road markers as a guide.
- Use wipers and defrosters liberally for maximum visibility. Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether poor visibility is because of smoke or moisture on the windshield, especially in the morning hours.
- Signal turns well in advance, and brake early as you approach a stop.
- Drive with lights on low beam. High beams will reflect back off the smoke and impair visibility more.
- Roll up your windows. Use your air conditioner on the recirculation mode to avoid outside air.
- Do not stop on a freeway or heavily traveled road. You could become the first link in a chain-reaction collision. If you must pull off the road, signal and then carefully pull off as far as possible.
- After pulling off the road, turn on your hazard flashers. Never drive with your flashers on.
--SOURCE: Florida Highway Patrol
CHART: HOUR-BY-HOUR VISIBILITY IN NORTHEAST POLK COUNTY
Visibility, in miles, as reported at Gilbert Airport:
SOURCES: National Weather Service, Sentinel Research, McClatchy Tribune
Keywords: PC CF NEWSEVENT AUTO ACCIDENT MULTIPLE DEATH INJURY DATE ROAD CLOSING
Memo: George Skene, Kumari Kelly, Bianca Prieto, Sarah Lundy, Walter Pacheco, April Hunt and Jim Leusner of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Willoughby Mariano can be reached at 407-420-5171 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Amy L. Edwards can be reached or 407-931-5944.
Daphne Sashin can be reached at 407-931-5944 or email@example.com.
Fog, smoke likely again this morning. A12
How smoke can create and worsen fog. A12
Ways you can bypass I-4 road closures. A13
For complete illustrations, including maps and charts, see printed copy.