1-year-old, teen among 6 killed in I-95 crashes

Lanes of I-95 southbound reopen midday Sunday, 16 hours after 2nd crash

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Nearly two days after two crashes on I-95 southbound, DOT will close one lane of traffic to inspect the pavement for damage from a fire that consumed several vehicles and burned for hours.

One driver and a 17-year-old passenger died late Saturday afternoon in a wreck in Flagler County, then a tractor-trailer slammed into traffic backed up from the first wreck, resulting in a pileup in southern St. Johns County that killed three adults and a 1-year-old boy and started a fire that burned well into the night.

All southbound traffic was diverted off I-95 at State Road 206 for more than 16 hours while the accident was investigated and resulting wreckage was cleared.

The Florida Department of Transportation is closing the outside travel lane of I-95 in southern St. Johns County from 1-2 p.m. Monday to remove samples of pavement to determine the extent of damage to the highway from Saturday night's fiery wreck.

"Preliminary reports are an estimated 300 feet of damage to the outside travel lane and paved shoulder in the area where a semi-truck and several passenger vehicles burned late Saturday," said Gina Busscher of FDOT in a release. "While the travel lane is now open and passable, long term damage will occur and the pavement will need to be replaced."

IMAGES: Fiery pileup in St. Johns County
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"We know that the top layer of asphalt was damaged, which is the layer you travel on," Busscher said. "It's called the friction course. It was damaged, but we also need to find out how far the fire went down into the pavement. So we're going to core or take a sample in the underlying asphalt layer to see if there is damage as well."

Busscher said the core sample will determine how much of the roadway needs to be replaced.

"The parts of the asphalt would start coming up, chunks, the rock in it would start peeling off," she said. "It has a glue or something that keeps it all together. It's like tar, and once that tar got hot and it kind of melted away, then there would be problems as well with drainage when it rains. The top layer of asphalt has rock in it that allows the water to go down and out on the side."

The Florida Highway Patrol said at least eight cars and three commercial motor vehicles were involved in the St. Johns County wreck that occurred about 7:40 p.m. Saturday.

FHP said traffic was detoured from I-95 southbound to the exit of U.S. 1 due to the Flagler County crash. Several vehicles stopped awaiting the detour were struck by a tractor-trailer driven by Barbara Carol Pennington, 50, of Lakeland.  The result was a chain-reaction crash that started a fire that burned for hours.

Pennington was pronounced dead at the scene. Early Monday, the FHP released the names of the others killed in the crash:

  • Nilda Valentine Rivera, 41, of Palm Coast, who was driving a Chevrolet Spark.
  • Kristin Ruiz, 25, of Jacksonville, driving a Honda Civic.
  • Jonathan Jay Ruiz, 1, of Jacksonville, who was also in the Civic.

The crash also left Randolph Anthony Smiroldo, 54, of Palm Coast, with critical injuries.

Joel and Rebecca Vanwingerden suffered minor injuries in a Buick Century.  Jillian Miller also suffered minor injuries in a Jetta.

In the Flagler County crash, troopers say 38-year-old Roy White, of Jacksonville, was driving a Chevrolet Silverado north on I-95 and for some reason drifted across the highway. That car hit the median and became airborne, traveling over a guardrail, and entered southbound lanes of I-95.

White's car hit the top of the Honda Civic driven by 56-year-old Pamela Taylor Thor, of St. Augustine, and then a third car.

Troopers say White's passenger, 17-year-old Benjamin Smith, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the truck.  Both Smith and Thor died from their injuries.

No one in the third car was hurt.

On late Sunday -- hours after the southbound lanes reopened -- debris was still scattered along the side of I-95 in southern St. Johns County. Part of the shoulder remains blocked off by caution signs.

Jeanine Ricchetti saw Saturday night's accident.

"We were screaming and crying and then praying. I think we were absolutely shocked. Saying 'Oh, my God, oh my God,' but I didn't know what to do because there was fire and I wanted to get away and yet I knew I was supposed to stay in my car, because you're supposed to be safer in the car," Ricchetti said.

Ricchetti says she spoke with two woman who she saw walking towards to crash.

"One of them got out and told her daughter, 'Turn around and walk as far away from the fire as you can and don't look back,'" said Ricchetti.

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