GAINESVILLE, Fla. >> Senior pastor Arao Amazonas said he wanted to wait until the next morning to leave Florida after a religious conference. But pastor Jose Carmo Jr. wanted to be back in time for the suburban Atlanta church’s Sunday morning service and led two vans up Interstate 75 toward Georgia.
A few hours later, Amazonas received an early-morning call: Both vans had crashed in the highway’s fog- and smoke-shrouded darkness near Gainesville, Fla. Carmo, his wife and their daughter were among five church members killed in two deadly pileups along the always busy six-lane interstate.
"We couldn’t have imagined such tragedy would come to us," said Amazonas, senior pastor at the Igreja Internacional de Restaurcao, or International Church of the Restoration.
In all, a total of 10 people were killed in the crash. The accident happened after the Florida Highway Patrol had reopened the interstate after an earlier serious accident. A sergeant and lieutenant determined after about three hours that conditions had cleared enough for drivers, but visibility quickly became murky again, officials said Monday. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has ordered an investigation into that decision.
"We went through the area. We made an assessment. We came to the conclusion that the road was safe to travel and that is when we opened the road up," Highway patrol spokesman Lt. Patrick Riordan said in a news conference. "Drivers have to recognize that the environment changes. They have to be prepared to make good judgments."
At least a dozen cars, six tractor-trailers and a motorhome collided about 3:45 a.m. Sunday. Some cars were crushed under the bellies of big rigs. Others burst into flames and sent metal shrapnel flying through the air, horrifying witnesses watching the violence along Interstate 75 in calls to 911. Eighteen survivors were hospitalized.
In a 911 recording released Monday, a driver and her passengers told a dispatcher the fog and smoke from the 62-acre brush fire was so thick they couldn’t see.
"I think there was another accident behind us because I heard it," a woman said. "Oh my gosh, it’s so dark here."
In the same 911 call, another woman took the phone and screamed an expletive as she hears another crash.
"That was a truck. We cannot see. It’s like impossible to see," the caller said. "The smoke is very thick you can see obviously only your hand in front. I do hear an ambulance or police officer coming down the road."
Late Monday, the highway patrol said seven people died and at least 16 people were injured after 10 vehicles crashed in the northbound lanes of the highway, the first of two multiple-vehicle pileups along I-75.
Jason Lee Raikes, 26, of Richmond, Va., died in the crash, authorities said. They also said five out of six people riding in a 2012 Dodge Caravan died in the crash: Driver Edson Carmo, 38; Roselia DeSilva, 41; Jose Carmo Jr., 43; Adrianna Carmo, 39; and Leticia Carmo, 17; all of Kennesaw, Ga. The highway patrol did not immediately provide the identity of the seventh crash fatality.
Jose and Adriana Carmo were married and Leticia was their daughter, said Arao Amazonas, senior pastor at their church, the Igreja Internacional de Restauracao, or International Church of the Restoration.
The van’s sixth occupant, the couple’s younger daughter, Lidiane, 15, survived the crash, Amazonas said. A hospital spokeswoman said Tuesday morning she was listed in critical condition.
The Carmos were in one van and other church members were in a second van. The passengers of that van called Amazonas after the accident to tell him what happened, he said.
About 100 people gathered Monday evening at the suburban Atlanta church, which caters to the local Brazilian community, to mourn the deaths of their fellow church members. People at the gathering wailed and wept as Amazonas addressed them in Portuguese.
Riordan declined to release the names of the two troopers who made the decision to reopen the highway or provide details on how long they had been with the patrol. He said no troopers have been disciplined but the investigation into the crash continues. National Transportation Safety Board officials said Monday they are sending investigators to the scene.
The Florida Forest Service said Monday it still had not determined if the brush fire was intentionally set or accidental, although lightning has been ruled out. Spokeswoman Ludie Bond said the fire is contained but was still burning. Firefighters are spraying water around its perimeter attempting to reduce the smoke.
Criminal defense attorneys said that if the fire was caused by arson, authorities likely will file charges of manslaughter and possibly felony murder, which is defined as a death that happens as result of participating in a felony.
"You can bet they will be," said Brian Tannebaum, a former president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Associated Press writers Mike Stewart in Marietta, Ga., Kate Brumback in Atlanta and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.