GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Two southbound lanes of Interstate 75 between NW 39th Avenue and U.S. 441 in Alachua remain closed Friday morning as the Florida Highway Patrol investigates a fiery multi-vehicle crash Thursday afternoon that killed seven people and injured several others.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, two tractor-trailers, a passenger van and a midsize sedan were involved in the crash about 3:40 p.m. near Mile Marker 394, just north of Millhopper Road. Authorities said the fire was ignited after about 50 gallons of diesel spilled onto the highway.
News4Jax was told eight people were transported to area hospitals, some with critical injuries.
While none of the identities have been released, FHP Lt. Patrick Riordan said that five of the accident victims who died were in a passenger van and some are children. Another person who died was in one of the tractor-trailers.
The Alachua County Sheriff's Office said a helicopter landed on the scene to search for any victims who may have been in the woods along the crash scene, which deputies described as "extensive."
According to the FHP, both trucks were destroyed by fire. The crash left a large amount of personal property, burnt vehicles and vehicle parts scattered across the road.
Vinnie DeVita said he was driving south at the time and saw it happen in the rearview mirror.
"If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly, I would have been in that accident," DeVita told WKMG-TV. "And then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames."
Authorities extinguished the fire, but the aftermath caused a portion of the interstate to be closed in both directions, causing massive delays.
All southbound and northbound lanes were shut down and, as of 5:30 p.m., traffic was backed up six miles in both directions. Northbound lanes reopened just before 8 p.m., but the Sheriff's Office anticipates southbound I-75, between NW 39th Avenue and U.S. 441, to be closed "for an extended time."
"They had undercover police officers directing people off of the interstate," one motorist said. "There are no cars, but you'll see the fire trucks, the ambulances, the DOT (vehicles) -- a lot of stuff you don't normally see out here."
People posted on the Alachua County Fire Rescue Facebook page. One person wrote "I sit here seeing this and everything it takes to hold back the tears which is not working too well. My heart goes out to those involved. Just making a statement. Please don't lose focus of the people involved."
"Thank you to some of my close friends, families, and friends were involved in this accident. They were in the van going to Disney World with a church group. I pray you can live with the sight that you saw. I don't know you but have love for you and your family. Thank you for being a great person and human being. I can only hope and pray you saved some of these children and adults."
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.