Five Louisiana children on their way to Disney World were among the seven people killed Thursday afternoon in a horrific highway crash near Gainesville, Florida, authorities said.
A big-rig truck and midsize sedan travelling north on Interstate 75 collided, overtook a guardrail and drove into the southbound lane, said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan.
The two vehicles then collided with a passenger van and a second tractor-trailer rig, sparking a massive fire fueled by 50 gallons of diesel, the Associated Press reported. A fifth vehicle drove through the crash debris, possibly striking some vehicle occupants who had been ejected upon impact, Riordan said.
In addition to the five children, both drivers of the trucks died. As many as eight other people were injured, authorities said, but the severity of their injuries was not clear.
“It’s a heartbreaking event,” Riordan said.
The children ranged in age from 8 to teenagers, he said. He did not know whether the 10 to 12 occupants of the passenger van were related but said they were on their way to Disney World from Avoyelles Parish, in east-central Louisiana.
Authorities are still notifying families of those who died and have not yet released the names of the victims.
Witnesses to the crash described a hellscape of fiery explosions, scattered debris and human bodies laid out on the road.
“We kept seeing these little explosions and fire,” Nicole Towarek told the Gainesville Sun. “The heat, it was insane.”
Vinnie DeVita said he was driving south on I-75 when he heard the crash. He told WKMG that he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the destruction.
“If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly, I would have been in that accident,” DeVita told the station. “It was so shocking to know that it happened, and then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames.”
When highway patrol officers responded to the collision scene, they found several vehicles consumed by flames and plumes of black smoke.
A law enforcement helicopter flew over the area, searching for injured people who may have ended up in the woods near the interstate.
The heat from the fire was so intense that it damaged the roadway, Troy Roberts of the Florida Department of Transportation said at a news conference Friday. The collision and fire closed down the critical north-south corridor for hours, causing major traffic delays. Maintenance crews on Friday were expected to work through the night to repair the interstate.
Authorities will continue investigating how the crash unfolded, and part of that investigation will look into the guardrail that failed to stop the initial big rig and sedan from crossing into the neighbouring lane. “The guardrails are there to stop as much as they can,” Roberts said.
The nature of the crash scene could complicate the investigation.
“The damage from the fire was extensive,” Riordan said.