First came the dense fog, then the brake lights, next the sound of metal and glass crashing and suddenly an explosion, said Joseph White Jr. of Laurens County.
“I saw the fuel tanker plow into an 18-wheeler 15 feet away from me and burst into flames,” White told a local newspaper, recounting Wednesday’s deadly vehicle pileup on a stretch of Interstate 16 between Macon and Savannah.
“Pieces of the tanker flew toward me on the freeway, barely missing me,” he told the Courier Herald of Dublin. “A piece of the tanker landed like 10 feet behind me as I was running.”
As the fog lifted, the extent of the damage became clear: Four people killed, nine taken to a nearby hospital with non-life threatening injuries and tons of twisted, burning metal.
The dead, who were in separate vehicles, were identified as Michael Jarome Smith, 52, of Covington; Joel Moore of Effingham County; and Clayton and Josephine Warnock of Dublin.
The Georgia State Patrol said as many as 10 separate crashes occurred. At one point, I-16 was shut down in both directions near the Laurens/Twiggs county line. By 6 p.m., eastbound lanes that had been closed for emergency vehicles were reopened to traffic, but westbound lanes remained closed. One westbound lane was expected to be opened late Wednesday.
At least seven commercial trucks were among the 27 vehicles involved in accidents. I-16 is a major route connecting commercial vehicles and tourists to Savannah and other parts to the Georgia coast.
A state Department of Transportation crew had been alerted to the troubling fog early Wednesday and was on its way to put out metal warning signs when they received a call from authorities about a crash, a DOT spokeswoman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The pileup occurred near Montrose, about 40 miles southeast of Macon. Visibility was poor, partly because the area was under a dense fog advisory. A National Weather Service meteorologist in Peachtree City said some areas had only a quarter-mile of visibility or less.
Some drivers also reported smoke in the area. The GSP said a controlled burn had been permitted in the area on Tuesday and troopers were trying to determine whether burning continued Wednesday.
The first chain reaction wreck happened about 8:10 a.m., and the other chain reaction crashes happened as vehicles approached the first accident, according to the GSP.
Some of the drivers who pulled to the side to avoid the crashes were rear-ended on the shoulder, GSP Capt. Kirk 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,” McGlamery told The Associated Press.
The fuel tanker that exploded was empty, but fumes inside ignited, causing an explosion, the GSP said. The driver, however, was not injured.
White, a 45-year-old Army National Guardsman who was on his way to work early Wednesday, told a Dublin reporter he was rear-ended just before the tanker explosion. He said the intensity of the heat “felt like being in Iraq with the fire and explosions.”
Laurens County EMS Director Terry Cobb told The Associated Press a half dozen vehicles were on fire. “There were six vehicles right there together and all of them were on fire,” Cobb said.
The Macon Telegraph reported more than 100 people from emergency crews in Twiggs, Bleckley, Laurens and Wilkinson counties responded to the crash scene.