Lives intersect on deadly stretch of I-75
11 killed, 17 others injured in pile-up on smoke-shrouded highway
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.
"When he arrived in a room, everyone knew he was there," Olivera said of Edson. "He was very social. He walked around the room laughing and hugging everyone."
Almeida described Leticia as a friendly, well-behaved girl who loved music.
"Leticia was amazing," she said. "She was a happy girl, a Christian girl."
Lidiane was the sole survivor in the church van. She remains hospitalized in Gainesville, but is recovering. The 15-year-old told family members she wants to stay in Georgia, and not return to Brazil, a country she left as a toddler and doesn't remember. Olivera said she will likely live with an aunt and an uncle near Atlanta and continue classes at the high school she loves.
Some church members and friends expressed concern this week that immigration authorities might pursue the girl because she's in the country illegally. But a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman said this week that the girl is not at risk of deportation.
On the southbound side another pickup truck slammed into a semi that had stopped in the center lane. Vontavia Robinson, 22, from the nearby small town of Williston, died when he crashed a Pontiac Grand Prix into the back of that pickup. An aunt told The Gainesville Sun that Robinson was coming home after bowling with his brother. His obituary said he came from a large family and had two children of his own.
Over in the northbound lanes, 10 vehicles were involved. A week later The Florida Highway Patrol is still trying to piece together what happened.
Jason Lee Raikes, 26, and Christie Diana Nguyen (pronounced WEN), 27, were riding in a Toyota Matrix that crashed in the northbound lanes.
The couple had met playing World of Warcraft online and he had moved to Florida from Richmond, Va., about a year ago so they could be together. Nguyen grew up in Gainesville, the daughter of a physician and his wife who had emigrated from China.
Nguyen met her best friend Kaitlin Smith while they were dancing in the troupe at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville. Although Nguyen went on to graduate from the University of Florida, she had enrolled in some classes at the community college this semester so she could continue to dance there. She had a 7-year-old son named Drew from a previous marriage.
"Everybody remembers her as the girl who loved two things more than anything: her son and her dancing," said Alora Haynes, who chairs the fine arts department at Santa Fe. "She was always smiling. She was a very pleasant person, and so much fun."
Raikes, who worked for a computer company, had taken his new girlfriend back to Virginia to see his family for Thanksgiving and planned to propose marriage, Smith said. One of Raikes' friends from back home, Joshua Squires, told WWBT-TV in Richmond that everyone there was proud of him.
"He managed to get himself a great job, beautiful girlfriend, move to an exciting new city and he was living his dream," Squires said.
Smith said she thinks the couple was driving back home to Gainesville from Ocala, where Nguyen had done some modeling for a photographer on Saturday.
"They had so much love for each other," Smith said. "I was hesitant to meet (Raikes) because I'm so protective of Christie. After I met him, I knew I had nothing to worry about. He loved her so much, and unconditionally. They laughed all the time."
It took hours for the FHP and others to clear Interstate 75 and reopen it after the wreck. The investigation into the accidents - and whether the FHP should have opened the road - continues.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.