Highway reopened by cops before fatal pileup

Aerial view of Interstate 75 in Gainesville, Fla. where according to Florida Highway Patrol at least 9 people have died as a result of multiple crashes Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012 involving 4 commercial vehicles and at least 10 passenger vehicles. The majority of the accidents happened in an area adjacent to where a brush fire was burning and producing heavy smoke. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Rob C. Witzel)
Rob C. Witzel

Interstate 75 south of Gainesville was opened to traffic again early Monday morning after a horrific, multi-vehicle pileup Sunday took ten lives. But then, it was closed anew later in the morning.

The disaster scene ran for one mile along the highway, which was 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 crash.

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

Cause of deadly Florida crash sought

Visibility was so poor that, when rescuers first arrived, 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.

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said, "It was a very traumatic situation and very frightening situation for them to go to be out there on I-75 in the midst of traffic, hearing crashes, hearing explosions, hearing people scream."

There are many unanswered questions, including whether the accident could have been avoided. Drivers were blinded by a combination of fog and smoke caused by a nearby brushfire -- a fire that may have been set intentionally. Visibility was so bad, officials had closed the highway for a time, but then decided to re-open it. And then disaster happened.

"We opened the road," says Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan. "Visibility was good -- good enough that we felt travel was safe. We opened the roadway, and I don't know exact time periods, but sometime after that was when we had these series of collisions."

Accident investigators will have to determine what caused the first crash that set off the deadly chain-reaction. They'll also look into why the highway was re-opened under such dangerous conditions.

To see Mark Strassmann's full report, click on the video in the player above.

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.