Multi-fatality crash on I-75
Standing amid the carnage of the nine-vehicle crash that killed six people on I-75 Thursday night, James Gillis smelled the gas and thick black smoke, heard the airbags popping as they burned and the poof that the seats made when the flames licked through the fabric.
Then he saw the dead woman, lying on her right side, eyes wide open.
"It was horrific," Gillis said. "That lady's blue eyes looking at me like that. She was so white."
Six people, including two children, died in the wreck, which happened around 7:10 p.m. Thursday just north of Exit 11 on Interstate 75 northbound.
18 PEOPLE INVOLVED IN I-75 WRECK
Tiffany Watts, 31, from Tennessee, in 2010 Toyota Scion
Sandra Anderson, 50, from Tennessee, in 2010 Toyota Scion
Unidentified child, 8, from California, in 2010 Toyota Scion
Unidentified child, 10 or 11, from California, in 2010 Toyota Scion
Brian Gallaher, 37, from Tennessee, in 2010 Toyota Prius
Jason Ramos, 36, from Georgia/Ohio, in 2003 Mazda SW
Marty Tumbleson, 30, from Tennessee, in 2005 Savana Van
Charles Allen Daniels, Jr., 41, from Tennessee, in 2005 Savana Van
John Stanley, 57, from Mississippi, in 2007 Chevy Uplander Minivan
Nancy Stanley, 55, from Mississippi, in 2007 Chevy Uplander Minivan
Ryan Humphries, 24, from Tennessee, in 2001 Ford F150
Justin Lnox, 60, from Mississippi, in 2015 Cadillac CTS
Benjamin Scott Brewer, 39, from Kentucky - driver of the semi-truck
Charity Dawn Pennington, 38, from Kentucky, passenger in the semi-truck
Travis Close, 40, from Tennessee, in 2015 Toyota Tundra
Tina Close, 39, from Tennessee, in 2015 Toyota Tundra
Unidentified child, 2, from Tennessee, in 2015 Toyota Tundra
Unidentified child, 6, from Tennessee in 2015, Toyota Tundra
Source: Chattanooga Police Department</p>
MULTI-VEHICLE CRASHES IN TENNESSEE
Number of vehicles involved - number of crashes
Five - 206
Six - 51
Seven - 12
Eight - 5
Nine - 1
Ten - 1
More than 10 - 0
Five - 173
Six - 39
Seven - 10
Eight - 6
Nine - 1
Ten - 2
More than 10 - 1
Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol
Eight vehicles were stopped in the road because of construction when a tractor trailer coming from behind plowed into them, according to Chattanooga police.
Gillis was just ahead of the wreck. He watched it all happen in his rear-view mirror.
"That truck was mowing cars down," he said. "I know that for sure. I saw them get hit."
He pulled his car over and rushed back to try to help. A total of 18 people were involved — six dead, six injured and taken to area hospitals, six who did not require medical attention.
The death toll is the highest for a single crash in Hamilton County in at least the last 21 years, according to the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Between 2005 and 2009, only 29 of the state's 1.7 million crashes involved nine or more vehicles.
Before Thursday, only one person had been killed on the Chattanooga stretch of Interstate 75 during the last five years, according to police.
"I've been involved in traffic fatalities for 27 years and this is by far one of the worst I've seen," said Chattanooga Police Lt. Adrian Gibb.
The truck driver, 39-year-old Benjamin Scott Brewer, survived. He is under investigation and has been interviewed by police, although wouldn't say why he — or the woman who was with him in the cab of the truck — failed to stop.
Brewer was driving from Florida, police said. He lives in Kentucky. Police could not say on Friday what he was hauling or what company he works for.
Investigators said Brewer was evaluated by drug recognition experts at the scene, and police took a blood sample to test for drugs and alcohol. Those results are pending, and Brewer was not in custody Friday afternoon, Gibb said.
Four of the people killed — including the two children — were in the same vehicle, the only vehicle that caught fire. One woman was ejected from that car, police said, but the other three died inside.
Witnesses said people tried to put out the flames with fire extinguishers and pull the children from the car, but the fire was too hot and too fast.
"We saw dolls coming out of the trunk," said Suzanne Cornell, another driver who was just ahead of the crash. "I was praying to God that maybe they weren't in there."
The remaining two victims, locals Brian Gallaher, 37, and Jason Ramos, 36, died in separate vehicles.
The crash scene stretched for 100 yards, said Chattanooga Police Chief of Staff David Roddy.
Cornell said she was seconds away from being hit by the truck.
"There was one car behind me and then the truck," she said, voice shaky with emotion. "And you know, for the grace of God, 15 seconds earlier, 10 seconds earlier it would have been me, too."
A team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Chattanooga on Friday to investigate the crash, spokesman Nicholas Worrell confirmed.
The NTSB doesn't investigate all highway crashes, Worrell added.
"A lot of factors go into what makes us decide to investigate," he said. "Is this something that has happened before? Is this something we're seeing is a trend? Is this something we could issue recommendations on to prevent something like this in the future?"
The wreck happened just before a Tennessee Department of Transportation construction zone, in an area where lanes were tapered down to make room for the work zone, said Jennifer Flynn, spokeswoman for TDOT.
Workers are in the middle of a resurfacing project, she said, and the work zone stretches from mile marker 13 to mile marker 19 in the northbound lanes. The work happens overnight, she said, from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The crash happened at mile marker 11.
Flynn was not sure how many lanes were open at the spot the crash occurred. She added that TDOT had multiple warnings up about the work zone and said the department followed all federal guidelines on how to set up the lane closures.
"Every message board from the [Interstate] 24 split to there was warning about this," she said. "We had a highway patrolman there in the taper with flashing lights on."
Police emphasized the investigation was in the earliest stages Friday and that the cause of the crash — why the tractor trailer failed to stop — is still unknown.
Friends and family of Brian Gallaher gathered at Ocoee Middle School on Friday night for a candlelight vigil. Gallaher was the school's band director and was very respected, his friends said.
"He was incredibly well-liked," said Alex Sturgill. "He was just so well-liked and such a figure in the community of Cleveland."
Gallaher was planning a trip to the Northeast to tour several Major League Baseball stadiums, said Sturgill, who lives in Connecticut. The two had exchanged Facebook messages about the trip just hours before Gallaher died.
The Dalton State College community also rallied, with many former students taking to social media to remember Jason Ramos, assistant director of residential life at the North Georgia college.
"He brought a lot of fun and humor to our office," said Natalie Bates, director of residential life. "And it was incredibly evident that he loved working with students and took pride in his job. This is a great loss to our Roadrunner community and he will be sorely missed."
Chattanooga police brought social workers and chaplains to the crash scene Thursday night to help officers, witnesses and victims deal with the trauma.
"As any officer can tell you, when a child is involved, that's what makes it the toughest," Gibb said.
After escaping the mayhem without a scratch, Cornell said she stayed at the scene for a while, until authorities told her she was free to go home.
She got back into her car — her unscathed car — and drove north up I-75, away from the crash scene and the miles of backed up traffic behind it.
"And the strangest thing was, driving on the I-75, there was no other cars," Cornell said. "And it hit me. I was the only car left."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or firstname.lastname@example.org with tips or story ideas.