There was a single mom who loved to dance, in the car with a boyfriend who had moved from Virginia to be with her. A pastor and members of his family, originally from Brazil, returning home to Georgia from an Orlando church retreat. A father, his wife and his daughter headed south from the Panhandle for a family funeral. A young man coming home from bowling.

The 11 lives were so diverse that the groups probably wouldn't have encountered each other again. But they all died together in a series of horrific chain-reaction crashes last Sunday morning on Interstate 75 just south of Gainesville. The stretch of highway is unsettlingly dark even on the clearest of nights, six lanes of blacktop running arrow straight through a state nature preserve -- the rare ribbon of major Florida highway without lights or billboards.

On this morning, the road was shrouded with smoke from a wildfire mixed with fog.


More than twelve hours before the crash, Sabryna Hughes Gilley texted her mother to ask if it was OK for her to go to Sarasota with her father and stepmother for a funeral. When Celeste Knapp didn't hear from her 17-old daughter after Saturday, she began to worry.

State troopers came to Knapp's door on Tuesday afternoon to tell her that she had died along with her father, Michael Hughes, and her stepmother, Lori. The Dodge Ram pickup carrying them south from Pensacola was burned so badly that it took authorities that long to determine how many people had been in it.

"They were looking for her because they put two and two together and knew she was in the car," Knapp said. "They had to peel back layers of the truck to get to her. I imagine she was sleeping back there and they found her tucked away in the back."

Family was important to Sabryna, and that was why she wanted to make the journey for the funeral of her stepmother's grandfather, Knapp said. She had two younger brothers, ages 11 and 8, and dreamed of being a pediatrician.


As Sabryna and the others approached, the stretch of Interstate 75 that runs through Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park had just reopened after being closed for three hours because of the thick smoke and fog. The Florida Highway Patrol says troopers had checked the highway and determined that visibility had improved enough for it to be safe.

But conditions worsened again a short time later, and those driving into it the muck suddenly couldn't see much beyond their own headlights.

In the southbound lanes, the FHP believes, two tractor-trailer trucks stopped. The Hughes' pickup couldn't stop in time.


For the church members from Georgia, driving the interstate after dark was part of their post-retreat routine. A friend says they attended several conferences each year and always drove home at night to get back for Sunday services.

Jose Carmo Jr. and his family had moved to Kennesaw, Ga., from Brazil more than a decade ago. He installed hardwood floors to make a living for his wife Adrianna and their young daughters, Leticia and Lidiane, even starting his own small company. They worshipped at a church led by Alonso Olivera, who eventually closed it for personal reasons. The led Carmo - known as Junior to his friends - to open his own.

"His heart was to preach," Olivera said of his friend. "He worked more to help people than to make money."

Jose, 43; Arianna, 39; and 17-year-old Leticia died in a van that crashed in the northbound lanes. The pastor's 38-year-old brother, Edson, was at the wheel of the van. He also died, along with his 41-year-old girlfriend, Roselia DeSilva.

Barbara Almeida, Adrianna Carmo's close friend and neighbor, had met the family soon after she arrived in suburban Atlanta in 2003.

"I wasn't a Christian. I wasn't a believer," Almeida said. "My husband and I became Christians because of the testament they gave. They lived a real Christian life. They were a true example for everyone."

Edson was much more garrulous than his reserved and reflective brother, Olivera said.