Their lives all suddenly converged — and ended — along a rural stretch of Interstate 16 early Wednesday when 27 cars, pickup trucks and tractor-trailers braked, swerved and collided in a fiery chain-reaction pileup.
“He was going to Atlanta for a meeting at a hotel,” said Deborah Moore of Clyo, whose 61-year-old husband worked as a wood chip quality technician for International Paper. She said she knew little about what happened in the crash. “I haven’t even wanted to see it on the news or anything.”
One westbound lane of I-16, where fuel vapors from an empty tanker exploded, remained closed Thursday. Authorities were still trying to piece together what caused the pileup that stretched nearly a quarter-mile, including whether a deadly mix of smoke and fog might have blinded drivers.
The Georgia Forestry Commission confirmed a landowner in Montrose, a small town by the interstate in Laurens County, had been permitted to burn brush on a 100-acre tract the day before the crash. Firefighters had also responded to a small wildfire in the same area late Tuesday afternoon.
“There could have been some residual smoke even if the fire wasn’t burning,” said Forestry Commission spokeswoman Wendy Burnett. “Where that smoke was and where the wind was blowing it is what our investigators are looking at right now.”
The National Weather Service had also issued a dense fog advisory for the area Wednesday morning, meaning visibility on the highway had been reduced to a quarter-mile or less.
The Georgia Department of Transportation said Wednesday it had dispatched workers to place caution signs on the interstate, but the crash happened before the crew arrived.
Whatever happened was enough to surprise even an experienced road warrior like Smith. The 52-year-old truck driver from Covington worked for a contractor that hauls packages for FedEx, said his brother, Frank Smith Jr. He said Smith had been driving 18-wheelers for about a decade, and before that delivered packages for UPS.
“The only thing he wanted to do was work,” Smith’s brother said. “He used to drive everywhere, all over, but right now he said he had gotten on a local route. He was experienced. He used to go all up to New York, Boston, California and everywhere in a big truck.”
Authorities found Smith’s truck with its FedEx logo at the very back of the pileup. The cab was completely smashed where it had run into another tractor-trailer ahead of it.
Both Moore’s pickup truck and the Warnocks’ vehicle were found heavily damaged and burned near the exploded tanker in the middle of the chain of collisions, said Gordy Wright, spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol.
Clayton Warnock, 81, was a retired mill worker from nearby Dublin and had lived his entire life in the area. He met and married his wife, 74-year-old Josephine, when they were both widowed. His son, Ken Warnock, said his father was a devout church-goer who would drop by every week so they could have dinner together.
Clayton Warnock was on his way to a doctor in Atlanta to have his pacemaker checked, the son said.
Investigators are certain visibility was reduced, Wright said. But it’s not unknown if that was because of fog, smoke or a mixture of the two.
Combined smoke and fog can be extremely hazardous to drivers, and conditions early Wednesday around I-16 in Laurens County appear favorable for such a mixture if there had been fire in the area the day before, said Ken Frantz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City.
Frantz said rising humidity the night before the crash was conducive to forming fog, while high pressure and low wind in the area would have pressed it down low. The same conditions would have caused any smoke from the smoldering remains of a fire to hug the ground as well. By 8:10 a.m., when the crash happened, the sun likely wouldn’t have been up long enough to warm the air enough for any smoke and fog to rise and disperse.
“This is a very common thing that happens all the time with fog and smoke,” Frantz said.