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Crashes happen from fog and smoke on U.S. 19

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By Jeff M. Hardison

Three separate accidents on U.S. Highway 19 happened Saturday morning when vehicles crashed into each other due to zero visibility, according to reports.

The highway closed from State Road 345, just south of the Gas Mart of Chiefland to SR 24 at Otter Creek from 7:50 a.m. until about 10 a.m., Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Mike Burroughs said.

There were no injuries in the accidents, although one person suffered from chest pain and was taken to Seven Rivers Hospital in Crystal River, Burroughs said.

The older fire engine from Chiefland Fire Rescue sustained minor damage, CFR Chief John Ward said. A truck pulling a boat was traveling too fast for conditions and the truck swerved to miss the fire truck but the boat hit the fire truck. The fire truck was being used to help stop oncoming vehicles, which would have run into rescue personnel who were helping clear wrecks.

"The fire truck was the least of my worries," Ward said. "That truck and boat possibly would have killed four or five people if the fire truck didn't stop it. When you've got somebody like that going so recklessly..."

The new radio system installed in Levy County Sheriff's vehicles and in Levy County Emergency Medical Service vehicles helped the coordinated rescue effort, EMS Director Marie Wells said.

Emergency personnel rescued people who were trapped in cars along that stretch of highway, unable to move because they could not see through the blanket of fog and smoke. The smoke came from a fire on the east side of the road, which was under control but still smoldering.

Wells explained how EMS took people from being stuck in the smoke.

"We spoke with the trooper and law enforcement out there, and we told them if we did not get people out of there we would have more patients than we could handle," Wells said. "Whether you have breathing problems or not, the longer you stay in a smoke-filled area the more likely it is you are going to need help. So we got everybody in their cars and we led them out of there."

An ambulance was at the front of a long line of northbound vehicles that cleared first. Then, EMS personnel walked from car to car parked along the southbound lane and helped direct them out slowly and safely.

Florida Department of Transportation personnel closed the highway by using orange cones south of Gas Mart. LCSO deputies stopped cars from entering the highway from CR 345 and 347, off of U.S. Alt. 27 by blocking those entrances with cruisers.

It was a combined effort that helped prevent death and injury.

"I'm very pleased with the outcome," Ward said. "My guys, and EMS and everybody did a great job. It's miraculous there were not any injuries."

Visibility was less than two feet most of the time along that stretch of highway that was closed for those two-plus hours.