Work crews on Interstate 16 were still clearing charred and twisted wreckage from the crash scene, which covered nearly a quarter-mile of the roadway, hours after the chain of crashes occurred at about 8:10 a.m. Crews initially reported three deaths before finding another person dead in the wreckage later Wednesday.
The Georgia State Patrol was still trying to piece together what started the series of wrecks involving 27 vehicles. Capt. Kirk McGlamery said even drivers who dodged to the side of cars crashing in front of them weren’t safe from getting rear-ended off the highway’s shoulder.
“It was just a chain-reaction,” McGlamery said. “I talked to two individuals involved who had come to a stop and had pulled off, one was on the shoulder and the other was trying to get out of the way, when they were struck by vehicles coming up behind them.”
Officials said poor visibility likely played a big part. Weather forecasts called for dense fog Wednesday morning, and McGlamery said motorists reported smoke across the highway. He said a controlled burn had been permitted nearby the day before, and troopers were trying to find out if burning continued into Wednesday.
The crash shut down I-16 in both directions for several hours, though a single eastbound lane had opened Wednesday afternoon. The highway covers only 170 miles between nearby Macon in central Georgia and Savannah on the coast. But it’s heavily traveled by commercial trucks hauling goods between Atlanta and Savannah’s busy seaport, and is often used by travelers as a route to Interstate 95 along the Eastern seaboard.
McGlamery said seven tractor-trailers were involved in the pileup, including an empty fuel tanker. Fumes inside the tanker exploded and caught fire, though the driver of the rig survived.
Joseph White, a soldier in the Army National Guard, told The Courier Herald of Dublin he was heading to work when he drove into heavy traffic clouded by black smoke. He was rear-ended before he saw a fuel tanker hit an 18-wheeler.
“I’m looking back and the tanker exploded,” said White, who ran from the scene after his car came to a halt. “Pieces of the tanker flew toward me on the freeway, barely missing me. A piece of the tanker landed like 10 feet behind me as I was running. It almost fell on my head.”
Martha Strickland, who passed through the smoky scene shortly after the crashes, said she could see the tanker burning but not engulfed in flames.
“We had to creep by because, you know, it was just so much smoke and to keep us from getting in a wreck, and we were on eastbound and that was in westbound,” Strickland said.
A Georgia Department of Transportation crew was on the way to place caution signs warning of low visibility on the interstate when the crash happened, DOT spokeswoman Jill Goldberg said. A 911 operator had called the DOT to say motorists were calling to complain of poor visibility, Goldberg said, though she didn’t know if it was fog or smoke that prompted the calls.
The DOT crew in Dublin, roughly 10 miles from the crash scene, was called within a minute of the 911 operator’s call and had loaded the caution signs into a truck and was en route when the Laurens County sheriff called the agency to report the crash, Goldberg said.
“There was less than 30 minutes between the time we got the 911 operator’s call to when the sheriff said there was a crash,” Goldberg said.
Laurens County EMS director Terry Cobb, who was among the first emergency officials at the scene, said at least six vehicles were still on fire when crews arrived. Emergency officials encountered fog on the way to the crash site, though it seemed to lift one they arrived, Cobb said.
Authorities said nine people injured in the crash were taken to Fairview Park Hospital in nearby Dublin. Jeff Bruton, a hospital administrator, said all were treated and released except for one patient who was transferred to a hospital in Macon.
The dead were identified as: Michael Jarome Smith of Covington; Jeff Moore of Effingham County; and Clayton and Josephine Warnock of Dublin.
The area was under a dense fog advisory at the time of the pileup, said Laura Belanger, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Peachtree City. In some areas, visibility was only a quarter-mile or less, Belanger said.