- NEW: Report: Roads had closed, then reopened before crashes
- Smoke from a nearby brush fire is thought to be a factor in the crashes
- The accidents happened between 11:30 p.m. and 4 a.m., the sheriff’s office says
(CNN) — At least nine people were killed in a series of overnight accidents in northern Florida, blamed on poor visibility from smoke from a nearby brush fire, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office said.
Most of the collisions were on Interstate 75, said sheriff’s Sgt. Todd Kelly, with some on U.S. Highway 441.
The crashes occurred between 11:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 a.m. Sunday in the same areas, he said. A responding officer reported visibility was virtually zero, he said.
Efforts to remove victims were ongoing Sunday, he said, and traffic has been diverted. The injured were taken to two hospitals in nearby Gainesville, he said.
One of those, Shands Hospital, reported that it had received 12 patients in its emergency department as of 10:30 a.m., and six were admitted through its Level 1 trauma center.
A dozen or more vehicles were involved in the crashes, Kelly said, describing the scene as “pure chaos” and the worst he has seen in his 14 years of service.
The smoke is from a brush fire at the nearby Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, he said. Darkness was also thought to be a “contributing factor” in the crashes, Kelly said.
Calls from CNN to the Florida Highway Patrol were not immediately returned Sunday, but the Gainesville Sun newspaper reported that both I-75 and U.S. 441 had been closed because of low visibility — and then reopened — before the crashes occurred.
“Actually the road had been closed earlier in the morning,” Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan told the newspaper. “It was assessed; conditions improved to a point where the road was reopened. These occurred after we reopened the road.” Road conditions were being monitored, he said.