Lakeland, FL Multi Vehicle Collision, Jan 2008
I-4 PILE-UP KILLS FOUR, INJURES 38 NEAR LAKELAND.
Lakeland - A 14-mile stretch of Interstate 4 will remain closed indefinitely after a massive series of pile-ups that killed at least four people and injured 38.
Sheriff Grady Judd said drivers early Wednesday ran into "a wall of smoke and fog" and began crashing into each other on the interstate near County Road 557.
That's just south of where what was supposed to be a 10-acre controlled burn got away from state workers and burned about 400 acres. But Judd and other officials were reluctant to say whether smoke from that fire contributed to the accident.
What is certain is that 70 vehicles collided in 10 separate crashes along about a two-mile stretch of the interstate. Three people were found dead or died at the scene Wednesday morning, and a fourth victim was found dead in a car as emergency workers went through the burned wreckage.
Five of the 38 injured were described as having serious injuries.
Polk County Fire Department Chief David Cash said shortly before noon that 41 vehicles were involved in the main crash.
What emergency workers faced was a massive rescue operation.
"In 35 years, that's the worst traffic accident scene I've been involved in," said Harvey Craven, Polk County Emergency Medical Services director.
One man was trapped for 4 1/2 hours, Cash said. Emergency workers finally used a crane-type wrecker to lift a semi off of his car and get him out about 11:15 a.m. He seemed to be doing well when he was freed and had never lost consciousness.
Six to eight cargo trailers burned.
The identities of the killed and injured were being withheld by authorities Wednesday.
Three of the most seriously injured victims were flown to hospitals - Lakeland Regional Medical Center, Orlando Regional Medical Center and Tampa General Hospital - and others were taken to a total of seven hospitals.
Some were evacuated by ambulance, and some of the least injured were sent out on school buses pressed into service.
It all started shortly before 5 a.m. when drivers found themselves enveloped in a blanket of thick fog and smoke from an out-of-control brush fire near State Road 33.
Officials closed I-4 from the Polk Parkway to U.S. 27 near Davenport shortly after that.
No one knows when the road will be reopened, said highway patrol, sheriff's and highway department officials at 3 p.m.
Drivers should plan alternative routes for today and Thursday.
At least nine people were taken to Lakeland Regional Medical Center, and three were in critical condition, said Jennifer Olivier, a spokeswoman with the hospital.
Doctors and nurses were in emergency mode, meaning that non-emergency surgeries were canceled, a separate triage was opened, and constant communication was kept with emergency personnel in case a surge of patients was expected.
Olivier said she expected an increase in patients throughout the day.
At Winter Haven Hospital, 16 people arrived, including 14 by school bus. Two of those were treated and released.
One deputy, Carlton Turner, 26, was involved in the early morning crashes. At 4:54 a.m., Turner got a call about an accident in the eastbound lane of I-4, Judd said. He drove into a "wall of smoke and fog," and his car was struck three times by others before he got it off the roadway.
He then tried to help people in other cars and found "a great deal of fire. People died in that fire."