In the moments following Friday’s overnight accident that claimed three lives, employees and customers at the nearby RaceTrac convenience store turned into first responders. They frantically warned oncoming vehicles headed directly toward an overturned tractor-trailer that covered most of the northbound lanes on Georgia 365 at Howard Road in Gainesville.
“We began to yell and flag down cars, two of which were able to see it in time and skid and use what little of the lane they could and the median to get around it,” said Jason Smith, who was working as night manager at the store.
“The first car, they really hit their brakes and skidded and were able to get around,” he said.
But the next car attempted the correction too late and hit the tail end of the semi truck, he said. The passenger in that Ford Escape was killed, Gainesville police said.
The accident injured six people, a spokesman with the Gainesville Police Department said. They were transported to Northeast Georgia Medical Center and listed in serious to critical condition Friday afternoon.
The identifications of the three deceased were not being released, pending notification of family.
Cpl. Joe Britte said four vehicles total were involved in the wreck, which was called in at 12:21 a.m. Friday.
The investigation is ongoing, but Cpl. Kevin Holbrook said the preliminary information shows that a Ford F-150 pickup was traveling southbound on Ga. 365 when it attempted to make a left-hand turn in front of a northbound tractor-trailer owned by Fieldale Farms.
That collision caused a chain reaction in which the Escape struck the rear of the tractor-trailer, he said. A Jeep Wrangler was possibly struck after the initial collision.
Two of the fatalities were in the F-150, the third a passenger in the Escape. Four of those injured were in the Jeep, Holbrook said.
Smith said he heard the crash before he saw it, and the patrons outside the store started yelling to call 911.
The bystanders grabbed fire extinguishers at the pumps and ran to the trailer to put out a fire, and others went to assist other victims.
Asked if he was worried about the inherent dangers, Smith said there was no second-guessing.
“I don’t think that occurred to any of us. We all of just rushed straight there and started giving assistance,” he said.
His co-worker went to check if anyone was “awake or alive or conscious,” in the pickup.
“The F-150 was basically — messed up into the trailer,” he said.
Britte, calling from the early morning scene, said “Right now, I can see that the tractor-trailer has totally engulfed the F-150 pickup.”
Others went to the Jeep Wrangler.
“Some of the guests went toward helping a family. A Jeep had rolled up onto the embankment there,” he said. “That lady and her children were conscious.”
Smith said his previous experience as a first responder in law enforcement was markedly helpful.
“I went down to see if anyone was on the roadway. I took in the whole scene,” he said.
“I do have some fire training.”
He said the most immediate danger was the potential for further crashes.
“The tractor was laying on its side, with its underbelly taking up both lanes. It took up three-quarters of those northbound lanes,” he said, adding “it basically covered almost the entire roadway.”
Smith and the other responders tried to warn cars as they unknowingly barreled toward the overturned trailer.
The third and last car before the police arrived was able to avoid a wreck, Smith said.
“They hit their brakes, skidded and turned and came to a stop. He was able to put his car back in gear and go around,” he said.
Smith’s associates went running back into to the store to get water, towels and ice, he said, while he went straight to the first officer as he pulled up to the scene.
Britte praised their actions, saying they were instrumental in acting as first responders on the scene.
“During the accident, there were bystanders at RaceTrac who ran out with fire extinguishers who put the fire out at the F-150 and tractor-trailer,” Britte said. “Unfortunately the witnesses who were there didn’t stay, but we want to send a thank you for their quick response, and by putting their lives in danger, saving the lives of others.”
The northbound roadway was shut down with police routing traffic around the scene until about 9:30 a.m. Friday.
The intersection has been the scene of numerous crashes, resulting in a campaign to install a traffic signal along the limited access highway last fall. A fatal accident in April 2012 was one of 14 cited there last year.