7 killed, 8 injured in crash, explosion on Florida highway

"And then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames."

–WGFL-Gainesville via AP

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Two big rigs and two passenger vehicles collided and spilled diesel fuel across a Florida highway Thursday, sparking a massive fire that killed seven people and injured at least eight others, authorities said.

The wreck happened on southbound Interstate 75 about a mile (1.6 kilometers) south of Alachua, near Gainesville. The flames were fed by about 50 gallons (189 liters) of diesel, authorities said.

Authorities initially said six had died but late Thursday night revealed a seventh victim had perished. At least eight others were hospitalized, some with critical injuries, the Gainesville Sun reported. FHP Lt. Patrick Riordan said early Thursday evening that five of the accident victims who died were in a passenger van, and another person who died was in one of the tractor-trailers.

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Vinnie DeVita said he was driving south at the time and narrowly escaped the crash — he said it saw it happen in the rearview mirror, immediately behind him, according to a report by WKMG.

“If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly, I would have been in that accident,” DeVita said. “And then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames.”

Emergency crews extinguished the fire, which was so intense that authorities said it damaged part of the road. The highway patrol is investigating the crash as a traffic homicide, which is routine in nature. They’ve called a 10 a.m. news conference to discuss the crash.

A spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol told The Associated Press in a phone interview that their top priorities were to conduct a thorough investigation and to identify the deceased.

“There’s going to be families that need to be notified that their loves ones have perished,” said Lieutenant Patrick Riordan.

It’s unclear whether the victims were killed in the wreck or whether they burned in the fire, which would make identification more difficult, he said.

The aftermath closed part of the highway in both directions, causing massive delays. Authorities opened the northbound lanes around 8 p.m. but all but one southbound lane remained closed Friday morning. Debris including personal property and vehicle parts was scattered across the road, the Florida Highway Patrol said. A helicopter helped search for any victims who may have been in nearby woods.

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Nicole Towarek was traveling northbound with her family when they came across the scene. She told the Sun that black smoke billowed, people were laid out near vehicles, there were long skid marks across the roadway and emergency workers were converging on the area.

“We kept seeing these little explosions and fire,” she said. “The heat, it was insane.”

It was the worst accident on I-75 in Alachua county since January 2012, when 11 people died in a chain reaction crash attributed to heavy fog and smoke on the roadway, which crosses Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Officials were criticized then for not closing the road due to worsening conditions, and later installed cameras, sensors and large electronic signs to help prevent similar crashes.

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Frisaro contributed from Miami.

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