At least three people are dead after a series of fiery crashes along northbound Interstate 35 under the Valley Mills Drive overpass that sent flames and black smoke into the air Tuesday afternoon.

The crashes involved four tractor-trailers and two passenger vehicles on I-35, Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said. Firefighters and police were called to the wreck at about 2 p.m., when explosions were reported and flames were seen coming from the interstate.

It remained unclear as officials continued working Tuesday evening how many people were injured in the wrecks and whether there were any other fatalities.

“Earlier this afternoon, we had a couple of crashes along Interstate 35 which obviously led to some congestion problems, and as we were clearing those crashes up, we had a multi-vehicle crash underneath the Valley Mills overpass,” Swanton said.

Officials were still working to identify the victims Tuesday evening.

“Because of the velocity of the vehicles hitting together, we have not been able to identify the extent of passengers in one of those vehicles, because that car is too mangled and underneath some of the semi wreckage,” Swanton said.

‘Immediate fire’

Justin Bradshaw, an Austin resident who was stopped on the northbound access road at Valley Mills Drive, saw a tractor-trailer on the interstate with two passenger vehicles immediately behind it had slowed in the traffic. He said a second tractor-trailer crashed into one of the passenger vehicles, pushing it into the other car and then into the other tractor-trailer.

“The tractor-trailer plowed into two civilian vehicles, and they were both crashed up underneath the other tractor-trailer,” Bradshaw said. “There was immediate fire. Everything caught, immediately after hitting those two vehicles.”

Mark McDaniel, of Riesel, was working at a business nearby when he heard the impact. Describing the sound as two trains hitting head-on, McDaniel said he rushed down to the access road and saw vehicles together.

“There was a guy on fire trying to come out of the truck and he got around to where the gas tank is. We tried to get him out when there was the explosion,” McDaniel said. “I was walking away when I saw the car under the 18-wheeler and I saw someone trying to come out of the back, toward the driver side and I just saw feet when there was another explosion.”

The heat from the fire forced several witnesses away from the wreckage.

‘Almost impossible for anyone to survive’

Assistant Waco Fire Chief Chris Pechacek said one firefighter suffered heat exhaustion during the initial response but was able to get medical treatment. Two occupants of vehicles involved in the crash were able to escape, and police and fire crews were able to contain the emergency by about 3:30 p.m.

“It was obviously a very bad wreck, … lots and lots of fire and thick black smoke, and it was almost impossible for anyone to survive,” Pechacek said. “From the fire side, we responded with 13 units, about 40 people, which is almost unheard of, but the magnitude of the incident dictated that.”

Waco police shut down the interstate in both directions from Highway 6 to McLane Stadium. By 4:30 p.m., officials reopened southbound lanes. The northbound lanes were being cleared late Tuesday night.

TxDOT inspectors determined the flyover bridge from Valley Mills Drive to northbound I-35 was damaged in the wreck and fire, Swanton said. The flyover will remain closed until additional inspections can be done Wednesday, so drivers should take alternate routes, he said.

Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

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