Officials probe whether trucker in fatal Georgia crash fell asleep

A tractor trailer sits on top of a crushed car after a multiple car accident on I-16 in Pooler, Ga. on Tuesday, May 19, 2015.

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- A woman and her teenage cousin traveling to visit the girl's hospitalized father were among five people who died in a fiery crash on a Georgia interstate Tuesday afternoon.

A tractor-trailer smashed into two cars and burst into flames on I-16 west of Savannah. The crash happened on a busy stretch of the interstate near its junction with I-95, which spans the East Coast.

Wendy Melton, 39, of Reidsville was riding with her cousin, Brittanie Altman, 16, of Claxton and Virgil Moody, 19, of Hagan, when they were killed.

Melton's brother, Tray Riner, said she was driving Altman to visit her father who was hospitalized in an intensive care unit in Savannah. Melton worked as a waitress to support her six children, ages 9 to 23, Riner said.

"She was a devoted mother. Her world revolved around her kids and her two grandkids," Riner said. "Her children, they're all to pieces."

Riner said he didn't know Moody, the second passenger riding with Melton.

Traffic had been halted by construction in the area before the crash, and police said witnesses reported seeing the tractor-trailer drift between lanes before the crash. Authorities are investigating whether the truck driver fell asleep at the wheel, said Georgia State Patrol Sgt. 1st Class Chris Nease.

"That is a possibility that we're looking into, that he had dozed off," Nease said. "We don't know that for a fact."

State Patrol officials said the tractor trailer sideswiped one car and ran into the Hyundai that Melton and the two teens were riding in. The car carrying Melton and the two teens was knocked into the median, Nease said. Two of the victims were ejected.

Glenda Adams, 72, of Cohutta and Jerry Earnest, 71, of Varnell died in a second vehicle that was crushed between the big truck and another eighteen-wheeler, Nease said.

The truck driver survived the crash without serious injuries. State Patrol has said no charges will be filed until after its investigation is complete. The crash damaged seven vehicles and prompted lane closures near the freeway's meeting point with I-95.

Tuesday's deadly collision happened less than a month after another crash involving a tractor-trailer on I-16 that killed five nursing students from Georgia Southern University. The earlier wreck April 22 happened less than 20 miles west of Tuesday's crash.

"It's so eerily similar, looking at them overall, it's scary," Nease said. "The biggest problem with most people is they're just being inattentive and distracted, and not necessarily by cellphones. It can be anything."