GAINESVILLE - Minutes before two pileups killed 10 people on a highway shrouded in fog and thick smoke from a brush fire, the Florida Highway Patrol had reopened the always busy six-lane interstate after an earlier serious accident.
A sergeant and lieutenant determined after about three hours that conditions had cleared enough for drivers, but visibility quickly became murky again, officials said Monday.
"We went through the area. We made an assessment. We came to the conclusion that the road was safe to travel and that is when we opened the road up," Highway patrol spokesman Lt. Patrick Riordan said in a news conference. "Drivers have to recognize that the environment changes. They have to be prepared to make good judgments."
At least a dozen cars, six tractor-trailers and a motorhome collided at about 3:45 a.m. Sunday. Some cars were crushed under the bellies of big rigs. Others burst into flames and sent metal shrapnel flying through the air, horrifying witnesses watching the violence along Interstate 75 in calls to 911. Eighteen survivors were hospitalized.
In a 911 recording released Monday, a driver and her passengers told a dispatcher that the fog and smoke from the 62-acre brush fire was so thick they couldn't see.
"I think there was another accident behind us because I heard it," a woman said. "Oh my gosh, it's so dark here."
Late Monday, the highway patrol said seven people died and at least 16 people were injured after 10 vehicles crashed in the northbound lanes of the highway, the first of two multiple-vehicle pileups along I-75.
The vehicles crashed about 4 a.m. after driving in heavy smoke that made it hard to see. Jason Lee Raikes, 26, of Richmond, Va., died in the crash, authorities said.
They also said five out of six people riding in a 2012 Dodge Caravan died in the crash: Driver Edson Carmo, 38; Roselia DeSilva, 41; Jose Carmo Jr., 43; Adrianna Carmo, 39; and Leticia Carmo, 17; all of Kennesaw, Ga. The seventh victim was identified Tuesday as 27-year-old Christie Diana Nguyen, a Gainseville woman who was a passenger in one of the cars involved.
Jose and Adriana Carmo were married and Leticia was their daughter, said Arao Amazonas, senior pastor at their church, the Igreja Internacional de Restauracao, or International Church of the Restoration.
The van's sixth occupant, the couple's younger daughter, Lidiane, 15, survived the crash, Amazonas said. A hospital spokeswoman said Monday afternoon that she was listed in critical condition.