4 killed in fiery chain reaction crashes on I-16

Telegraph staffFebruary 6, 2013 

MONTROSE -- Squealing tires and flames broke the calm of a rural Middle Georgia interstate Wednesday as a warm winter morning exploded into the chaos of crumpled metal.

Fog and smoke had blanketed the woods and pastures along the sleepy stretch of freeway west of Dublin.

Unable to see traffic ahead of them, some drivers pulled off the road.

But more than two dozen others headed toward Macon on Interstate 16 kept going.

Just after 8 a.m. they were caught up in a chain-reaction crash that included as many as 10 separate crashes near the Bleckley-Laurens county line, more than 30 miles southeast of Macon.

Four people died.

A Dublin couple -- Clayton Warnock, 81, and Josephine Warnock, 74 -- died after their car became mangled in the wreckage of 27 vehicles that stretched for a half mile, said Laurens County Coroner Richard Stanley.

Michael Jarome Smith, a 52-year-old Covington man in a FedEx truck, and Joel Moore, of Effingham County, who was in a Ford pickup, also died, Stanley said.

Moore, 61, had been on his way to work in the Atlanta area. He was a wood chip quality technician.

Nine others were injured.

Some travelers were thankful to walk away unharmed.

Paula Cadle was driving to Macon for a doctor’s appointment when she noticed the fog steadily getting worse after she passed the westbound rest stop in Laurens County.

By the time Cadle, who lives in Swainsboro, reached the Montrose area, visibility was almost zero.

She saw flashes of brake lights on tractor-trailers in front of her as one truck swerved around another.

“It was so sudden,” she said. “I braked real fast.”

Cadle was just behind the last vehicles at the tail of the chain reaction. She escaped unscathed.

Joseph White wasn’t so lucky.

White, of Dublin, was several vehicles ahead of Cadle when he swerved into the emergency lane to avoid other cars and was struck in the rear by a truck.

“You couldn’t see anything,” he said. “Tankers and everything else piled on top of us.”

At the back of the wreckage, Cadle pulled to the side of the road. She called 911, but dispatchers had already gotten word about the crash.

Emergency workers shut down all four lanes and evacuated anyone who could walk to an area east of the crash site.

“They weren’t sure about the gases being released, and the smoke was very heavy and there were explosions,” Cadle said.

White likened the sight to “something out of Iraq” as an empty fuel tanker exploded and burned.

The domed end of the tanker’s fuel container rocketed 50 yards down the interstate in a blast that folded the piece of metal in half.

Ambulances took the nine injured to Fairview Park Hospital in Dublin.

By midafternoon, eight had been treated and released. One person was taken to another hospital, a hospital spokesman said.

Fog and smoke

The Georgia Forestry Commission issued a permit Tuesday morning for underbrush to be burned on 75 acres in Montrose, just north of the interstate.

The permit was good for 24 hours.

Later Tuesday, at about 5:20 p.m. state firefighters responded to a wildfire in the area. It’s unclear whether the blaze was spawned by the controlled burn, said Frank Sorrells, of the forestry commission.

It’s not uncommon for smoke to linger long after fires are put out, he said.

Tuesday night was calm, with only a light wind, if any.

Surface moisture created a dense fog that spread throughout the region.

Smoke typically hugs the ground in cool, night air until temperatures rise the following day, said Kent Frantz, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

“When smoke mixes with fog like that ... it has the impact of just making the visibility even lower,” he said.

Jenna Walcott plunged into dark gray smoke as soon as she drove onto I-16 Wednesday morning.

It was about 7:30.

She got on at exit 42 for her daily commute to work at Mercer University.

The smoke “was just choking” as it permeated her Toyota Camry.

Unable to see, the Dublin woman pulled onto the interstate’s shoulder.

There was another car already there, but she didn’t see it until she whipped in front of it.

Walcott switched on her hazard lights and drove on the rumble strip, sometimes at 5 mph or less until she reached exit 32 and the air cleared.

“Someone’s going to get killed,” she thought. “You couldn’t see anything.”

It wasn’t until she got to work and saw online news reports that she realized people had died in a wreck in the area where she had just driven.

Clogged traffic

Cadle, who narrowly avoided becoming part of the pileup, waited by the side of the interstate for about 45 minutes.

A state trooper moved her car so a fire truck could park closer to the wreckage.

Emergency workers cut the thick, metal cable that served as a median divider to allow Cadle and other cars to turn around and drive east, detouring around the crash site.

Westbound lanes remained blocked hours after eastbound lanes reopened shortly after noon.

At one point, traffic was halted in both directions as emergency crews used the eastbound lanes to take the injured to the hospital.

One westbound lane was scheduled to be reopened Wednesday night. The other lane was to remain closed all night.

Investigators from the Georgia State Patrol painted a number on each of the 27 cars and trucks in the crash.

Capt. Kirk McGlamery said he drove through the area at about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and the smoke had cleared. But another trooper noticed smoke early Wednesday and alerted the Georgia Department of Transportation.

There was a plan to post signs to warn drivers, he said.

But the signs didn’t arrive in time.

Telegraph writer Joe Kovac Jr. and The Savannah Morning News contributed to this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

View I-16 wreck in a larger map

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