There were more than 30 victims, 11 of them dead and 23 others who were hospitalized.
At a ceremony at the Shands Cancer Hospital on Thursday to honor members of the medical community who helped that day and in the days afterward, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said the interstate that morning “felt and looked and smelled like a warzone.”
“Their efforts were heroic amidst a horrific situation,” Darnell said of the doctors, nurses, paramedics and medical examiners who helped save lives and identify the deceased.
The sheriff is handing out some 375 certificates of appreciation to members of the various agencies who helped in any capacity that day — the Gainesville Police Department, Florida Highway Patrol, Florida Department of Transportation and Marion County Sheriff’s Office to name a few.
She honored members of her own department earlier this year.
Tim Goldfarb, the CEO of Shands HealthCare, praised his staff for being prepared for the unprecedented crashes that happened at about 4 a.m. on Jan. 29, when smoke from a wildfire and fog combined to virtually blind drivers entering the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park on I-75.
Some 20 vehicles were involved in crashes on both sides of the interstate before the FHP closed the highway.
I-75 had been shut down at about 3 a.m. but reopened some 30 minutes later when the smoke had cleared.
“It was a very smooth process from the perspective of providing response to the victims, the victims not only at the incident but those affected by the incident afterward,” Goldfarb said.
Dr. Michael Good, the dean of the University of Florida College of Medicine, called it a “response we can be proud of to a very tragic situation.”
Dr. Adrian Tyndall, the chairman of the UF department of emergency medicine and the medical director at the Shands emergency department, singled out the emergency room’s nurses.
“Without their help or assistance, we would not have been able to get any of this done,” Tyndall said.
Bruce Goldberger, a professor and director of toxicology in the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine at the College of Medicine, and members of his team were left to sort out the dead.
There were “walking wounded” whose relatives were dead inside their vehicles.
The seven bodies on the northbound side of the interstate were intact, he said. The four dead on the southbound side had been burned in a fire from the crash.
“It was just like a war on both sides of the road,” Goldberger recalled.
The sheriff also recognized the United Way of North Central Florida for its work with victims’ families.
Debbie Mason, the president and CEO of the local United Way, said the organization has distributed about $65,000 in cash and in-kind donations to relatives of those killed.
“It’s a lot for folks to face while they’re grieving,” Mason said.