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'I felt death right behind me'

On a stretch of Interstate 10 shrouded in smoke from a brush fire, 22 vehicles hurtle into one another. Three people are dead, 21 injured.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000


WELLBORN -- In a cloud of wildfire smoke as thick as cotton, Alice Reed heard the horrible sound of metal on metal. Glass smashing. People screaming.

By the time the smoke cleared on the desolate stretch of Interstate 10 near Lake City on Wednesday morning, 22 mangled vehicles -- including six semitrailer trucks -- were tossed across four lanes and the median like tornado litter. Three people were dead. Twenty-one more, ranging in age from 2 to 60, were injured. Authorities did not release the names of the victims.

Among the most poignant tragedies: Police said one victim was a man who stopped to help, only to be hit and killed when a semitrailer truck careened into him. From his car on the side of the road, the man's horrified family witnessed the tragedy, said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. George Wehrli.

"There were people scrambling all over the place. You didn't know who belonged to who, what car, what truck, nothing," said Reed. "All the truckers were screaming on the CB radio: "Slow down! Back off!' "

Reed is a trucker's wife from Atoka, Okla., who was in the cab keeping her husband company Wednesday morning as he hauled a load of absorbent material from Houston to Palatka.

Sixteen vehicles crashed in the westbound lanes, and six others piled up in the eastbound lanes. One of the tractor-trailers was carrying several containers of muriatic acid, but only one gallon leaked inside the trailer and never posed a danger.

Officials don't yet know for sure what caused the 8 a.m. crash that closed Interstate 10 for hours Wednesday and early today. But people who survived the 22-car pileup, and those who drove up on it moments after the fiery impact, say extremely thick smoke from a brush fire was to blame.

Authorities have said the fires, at Osceola National Forest 10 miles away, had been intentionally set.

"I couldn't even see the hood of my car," said Erik Gebauer, a 26-year-old aspiring male model from Melbourne who made a miraculous escape from the tangle of metal.

Gebauer was among the first wave of crashes. His black Mustang jammed beneath a semitrailer truck, blocking both lanes. Nearby, another truck was in flames. Panicked, Gebauer pounded on his door and jumped from the car. Seconds later, as his feet touched the roadside grass, he heard the thunderous crash of a second semitrailer slamming into his car. Then, a third.

"I could feel the wind -- then BOOM! I felt death right behind me," said Gebauer, who suffered cuts and bruises. "I was going to come back into the flames and smoke and try to help, but I didn't know if it was going to blow up."

Instead, he ran through the thick underbrush, through the smoke and stood jumping and waving as oncoming cars approached the pileup, unaware.

"I felt so helpless watching these cars going into something I just came out of," he said. "I hope I saved some other people by getting them to stop."

On the other side of the highway, a white car was crumpled under a semitrailer truck that was hauling goods for the Albertsons supermarket chain. A closer look revealed the mangled remains of a blue police light on the top. Michael Vickers, a 29-year-old Hamilton County sheriff's deputy, walked away from the accident.

After frantic calls from truckers who came up on the accident, helicopters descended on the isolated stretch of highway to whisk victims to hospitals in Jacksonville, Gainesville, Lake City, Tallahassee and Live Oak.

Authorities set up an elaborate detour to get vehicles around a 20-mile section of Interstate 10 that was closed to traffic.

After looking at the crumpled cars, it was hard to believe that a dozen of the victims were treated and released. Some came back to the crash scene to collect their belongings. On the roadside: a small white Reebok sneaker. A box of Kleenex. A scrap of paper bearing hand-written directions to somewhere.

"If we'd been just five minutes earlier, even a minute earlier, we'd be in there," Alice Reed said.

"I'm happy for being alive," Gebauer said. "But people died here today. I mean, three, four, five seconds. ... Think about it, one, one thousand, two, one thousand. That would have been it."

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