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Fla. 22 Vehicle Pileup Kills Three

March 8, 2000

WELLBORN, Fla. (AP) _ Blinding smoke from a nearby forest fire caused a massive traffic pileup on a north Florida interstate Wednesday, killing three people and injuring 21 others, officials said.

Twenty-two vehicles were involved in the crash, including a tractor-trailer carrying acid, said Lt. Ken Knowles, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol. The acid was contained within the truck and never posed a danger, he said.

Knowles blamed the pileup on a blaze in Osceola National Park about 10 miles away.

``The low visibility was a result of the forest fire,″ Knowles said.

The injured, including a Hamilton County sheriff’s deputy, were taken to hospitals. Rhonda Sherrod of Shands Hospital said her facility had treated 14 victims, with injuries ranging from minor to critical. Three of the more seriously injured were airlifted to other hospitals, she said.

The accident occurred on Interstate 10 shortly before 8 a.m. Officials closed 17 miles of the highway from Lake City to Live Oak, which is about 75 miles east of Tallahassee.

Because of so much twisted wreckage, it took several hours for authorities to determine how many vehicles were involved. At least five trucks could be seen jackknifed in the wreckage.

Murel McDonald, Suwanee County emergency services manager, said when he arrived at the scene, smoke from forest fire the blanketed the ground. The 7,000-acre fire was intentionally set, officials have said.

McDonald said he has requested satellite imagery from the state to determine the precise cause of the crash.

Erik Gebauer, of Melbourne, Fla., said he was driving a Mustang that slid under a tractor trailer.

``I don’t understand how I lived through that,″ said Gebauer, his voice shaking. ``All I can remember was pushing that freaking door. I felt death right behind me. I can’t believe I made it.″

The injured deputy, Michael Vickers, is believed to be in good condition, said Sharon Wetherington, Jennings city clerk.

``I just talked to his mother and everything seems fine,″ Wetherington said. ``He’s alert, he’s talking and everything seems fine.″

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