- Associated Press - Sunday, January 29, 2012

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — At least nine people died in a series of crashes apparently caused by heavy smoke and fog overnight on Interstate 75 in north Florida, authorities said Sunday.

Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan said the pileups happened around 3:45 a.m. Sunday on both sides of I-75 south of Gainesville. All lanes of the interstate remained closed as investigators began trying to figure out what caused the early-morning crashes.

Lt. Riordan said several people were injured and taken to Gainesville hospitals. Their conditions were unclear.

At least 17 people hurt in the wreck were being treated at Shands at the University of Florida, the hospital said on its website.

The FHP  closed the highway briefly overnight because of a mixture of fog and smoke from a marsh fire in the Paynes Prairie area south of Gainesville.

Lt. Riordan said the agency had several troopers driving along the stretch of I-75 to access the situation early Sunday.

“When the visibility cleared, we reopened the road,” he said.

He said he is not sure how much time passed between the reopening of the highway and the first crash.

At least four to five large commercial vehicles and about six passenger vehicles were involved. Lt. Riordan said many were badly compressed.

Lt. Riordan said this is the worst accident he’s seen in his 27-year career with FHP.

U.S. 441 is also closed, and traffic is being diverted onto U.S. 301 and State Road 27, Lt. Riordan said.

Heavy fog and smoke were blamed for another serious crash four years ago. In January 2008, four people were killed and 38 injured in a series of similar crashes on Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa, about 125 miles south of Sunday’s crash. More than 70 vehicles were involved in those crashes caused by fog and smoke, including one pileup that involved 40 vehicles.

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