911 call from I-75 crash describes horror

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A 911 call received from the scene of a horrendous multi-vehicle accident on Interstate 75 early Sunday captures the confusion and fear of motorists, as well as screams and the sounds of crashing cars.

The Alachua County Sheriff's Office released the recording of a 911 call from a motorist who had hit a guardrail. The call is mild at first and then is punctuated with the sounds of crashes as more and more cars collide in the dense smoke and fog that permeated the highway.

CALLER: Oh [EXPLETIVE]! Another accident. Oh my God!
911 OPERATOR: What just happened? Tell me what happened.
CALLER: Another accident, another accident going northbound.
911 OPERATOR: OK.
CALLER: Yeah. Oh my goodness. And that was a truck!
911 OPERATOR: And what kind of truck, like a semi?
CALLER: You can't see. You cannot see. It's like impossible to see. The haze is, like the smoke is very thick, you can hardly see holding your hand in front.

Near the end of the 10-minute recording, the witness describes the continuing pileup at about sixteen vehicles. She describes cries from across the road, as more oncoming cars are heard:

911 Operator: And about how many people are hurt?
CALLER: Hold on, hold one, we're hearing another one.... He's stopped in time.
The caller describes what she thinks are the vehicles involved when ANOTHER CRASH is heard.
CALLER: Oh my God! Another one. Damn it, this is bad!

Audio: First 911 call from Florida Interstate 75 crash
Transcript: Florida I-75 crash 911 call

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board has two investigators at the site of the I-75 crash that killed 10, an official tells CBS News.

There is no specific threshold for investigating highway crashes, but the Board investigates "high consequence events and incidents." Ten people were killed and 18 others hospitalized in the multi-vehicle accident that occurred in low visibility early Sunday.

I-75 was reopened Monday morning as accident investigators tried to determine what caused the first crash that set off the fiery chain reaction that killed 10. The Florida Highway Patrol is leading the investigation.

Cause of deadly Florida crash sought

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports it may turn into a criminal investigation.

Drivers were blinded by a combination of fog and smoke caused by a nearby brushfire - and that fire may have been set intentionally. State officials can find no natural cause, no natural explanation like a lightning strike, which could have started the brush fires.

The disaster scene ran for one mile along I-75, littered with the burned-out shells of up to 19 vehicles, including at least seven tractor-trailers. In zero-visibility conditions, a combination of smoke and fog, drivers headed into a deadly multi-car pileup.

An aerial view of Interstate 75 in Gainesville, Fla. Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012.
AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Rob C. Witzel

"As we were coming through the prairie, it went from crystal clear visibility to nothing in 50 feet," crash survivor Bert Thomas told CBS News.

Visibility was so poor that when rescuers first arrived on the scene, they could locate victims only by listening for moans and screams.

Throughout the day, firefighters sprayed foam on smoldering wreckage and rescuers used machinery to pry victims from vehicles.

"It was a very traumatic situation and frightening situation to be out there on I-75. Hearing crashes, hearing explosions, hearing people scream," said Alachua County Sheriff spokesperson Sadie Darnell.

The interstate had been closed for a time before the accidents because of a mixture of fog and heavy smoke from a brush fire that may have been intentionally set. The decision to reopen it early Sunday will certainly be a focus of investigators, as will the question of how the fire may have started.

The pileups happened around 3:45 a.m. Sunday on both sides of I-75. At least a dozen cars and six tractor-trailers were involved, and some burst into flames.

Hours later, twisted, burned-out vehicles were scattered across the pavement, with smoke still rising from the wreckage. Cars appeared to have smashed into the big rigs and, in one case, a motor home. Some cars were crushed beneath the heavier trucks.

Reporters who were allowed to view the site saw bodies still inside a burned-out Grand Prix. One tractor-trailer was burned down to its skeleton, charred pages of books and magazines in its cargo area. And the tires of every vehicle had burned away, leaving only steel belts.

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