MANATEE — At least one person is dead after a crash involving a tractor-trailer rig and several other vehicles on the Interstate 75 bridge over the Manatee River, according to Florida Highway Patrol.
The crash occurred Friday afternoon when the semi-truck was unable to stop as traffic slowed because of the afternoon rush and it crashed into the rear of an SUV, killing the female driver, Trooper Kenn Watson said.
That caused a domino effect and at least six vehicles were involved.
Unconfirmed reports that an object went off the bridge and into the water prompted officials to call out the U.S. Coast Guard and other local law enforcement marine units to search the river for the possibility of a body, Watson said. Officials said they believe it was debris from the accidents, however.
“Everything is now open,” wrote FHP Lt. Gregory S. Bueno in an email just before 9 p.m. Friday.
The interstate was reopened hours after its northbound lanes were closed just north of the interchange with U.S. 301. Before that time, northbound traffic was diverted to AN exit at State Road 64, and there were reports of traffic delays south to about University Parkway.
Multiple officers stood in the middle of SR 64 on Friday evening, directing traffic where the road intersects with I-75. A few Manatee County Sheriff’s Office cars and FHP cars were parked in the area, and orange traffic cones dotted lanes throughout to direct drivers more clearly.
The highway patrol received the call regarding the accidents at 4:19 p.m. At least 20 law enforcement, emergency and towing vehicles were still on scene at 7 p.m.
Monica Cotton was with her husband and sons, ages 4 and 8, on the back deck of Woody’s River Roo Pub & Grill on the river and said she witnessed the crash.
“My husband and the boys were watching the bridge,” Cotton said by telephone. “All of a sudden, we heard screeching brakes and then looked up and saw the tractor-trailer pushing the SUV that was on fire and it hit the cement wall and (was) completely engulfed in flames.”
Her husband and other diners also witnessed the crash called 911, she said.“It was so fast, there was no time to react,” Cotton said.The bridge was also on fire for a bit, she added. “It was absolutely horrific,” Troopers were dispatched to the scene at 4:23 p.m. and arrived on scene at 4:39 p.m.
Initial reports were that a fuel tanker truck involved because reports said it had been engulfed in flames, Bueno said.
“There were at least two vehicles that caught on fire,” said Capt. Mike Turner, with Manatee County Emergency Medical Services.
Paramedics were called out to the scene at 4:15 p.m. In addition to the one confirmed fatality, there were other victims with minor injuries, he said. Watson said reports of the number injured ranged from four to six. Only one was transported to a local hospital for further treatment.
East Manatee and North River fire departments both responded to assist.Traffic in the southbound lanes slowed and was backed up to the I-275 exit at mile marker 228, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
In June 2008, I-75 at U.S. 301 was closed for several days after a fuel tanker crashed, exploded and fell off the bridge, killing the driver and severely damaging the southbound span of the overpass.
Stacy Parker LeMelle, an author and writing teacher from New York City, was on I-75 on Friday evening with her husband and their 4-year-old son. The family was traveling southbound en route to Naples when LeMelle said they encountered heavy traffic.
“I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ and then when we approached Manatee (River) bridge, we could see that something very dramatic had happened,” she said by telephone Friday evening.LeMelle said she saw a burned car, and the tractor-trailer rig.
“It was crunched. You could see the windshield totally cracked. The front cab was damaged,” she said. “I was very surprised that the truck had suffered so much damage.”
At the time, LeMelle said she didn’t know someone had died as a result of the crash. She said she was most shocked at seeing a mile-stretch of northbound cars being turned around on I-75 to head southbound.
“When we were driving past, they (officials) had already managed to turn people around on the highway,” she said. “I had never seen that happen.”
LeMelle described the accident as awful and frightening.
“My heart goes out to people who suffered,” she said.
LeMelle’s voice turned emotional.
“With driving, it’s easy to forget that you are driving a weapon or driving the means of your own destruction. It’s something that should be fun and something we do every day because we have to — but it’s dangerous,” she said. “It can take our lives and it can end in a fiery ball on a bridge over the beautiful water ... it’s just sad.”