Northbound Interstate 95 was reopened in Johnston County on Thursday morning more than 12 hours after a series of crashes, including one near Smithfield involving a burning load of chemicals and another that killed two people near Four Oaks.
Southbound I-95 remains closed at U.S. 70 Business, which is Exit 95. Traffic is being directed off the highway at Exit 95, across U.S. 70 Business and then back down the on-ramp while State Department of Transportation crews work to replace pavement damaged by the heat from the fire.
Johnston County Schools announced a two-hour delay for students and staff on Thursday due to the hazardous materials on I-95. County officials lifted an evacuation order that had covered a mile around the fire.
The first of three crashes took place about 12:10 p.m. Wednesday, near mile marker 90 on I-95 southbound when a tractor-trailer truck ran off the road. The driver was pinned for about four hours, and one lane of I-95 southbound was shut down while emergency responders tried to free him, State Highway Patrol Lt. Gordon said.
The second wreck occurred about 1:30 p.m. when a truck carrying four different chemicals, including oxidizers and ether, was hit by a recreational vehicle, igniting the chemicals and resulting in a fire that was left to burn itself out, according to Johnston County Emergency Management. That wreck also took place on the southbound side near Exit 95. Gordon said troopers and firefighters expected the chemicals to burn through the night.
“There will be some impact to morning travel on I-95,” Gordon said. “Even if the fire is out, I expect some kind of damage to the road.”
The third wreck, near Four Oaks, involved five vehicles – three tractor-trailers, one passenger vehicle and another RV. As traffic slowed due to earlier crashes, the five vehicles collided, resulting in the death of two people inside the RV. A third person was transported to a hospital with life-threatening injuries, Gordon said.
No identities of the dead or injured were available early Thursday.
A hazardous materials response team from Raleigh arrived at the scene of the chemical fire around 3:30 p.m. EMS crews from Smithfield and Selma staged at a Sheetz gas station a few hundred yards from the blaze.
The condition of those involved in the hazardous materials crash was uncertain, Gordon said, since emergency responders couldn’t get close enough to attempt a rescue.
“We just can’t get close enough right now because of the chemicals,” he said Wednesday night, adding that the death toll may rise when the flames die down.
Authorities initially evacuated everything within a half-mile radius of the burning truck, but Johnston County Emergency Services later expanded the evacuation zone to a mile, an area that includes parts of downtown Smithfield, “due to uncertainty of the current and future direction of winds.”
Businesses along Outlet Center Drive closed, and Johnston County Middle College, Johnston County Early College and South Campus Community School, as well as the county school system central offices, were evacuated. Employees and students at Johnston Community College received a text alert at 2:21 p.m. telling them to evacuate the campus. The college planned to resume its normal schedule Thursday.
School Superintendent Ross Renfrow said on Twitter that the I-95 wrecks caused some bus routes to be “much longer than normal” on Wednesday for schools along the interstate. Many county buses already were completing alternate routes due to damaged roads from Hurricane Matthew. Johnston County government offices also will operate on a two-hour delay Thursday.
Those evacuees who had no where to go were taken to a shelter at First Baptist Church on South Fourth St. in Smithfield, according to the town. The county later opened shelters at Cleveland High School and Princeton High School
Shutting down a 10-mile stretch of I-95 turned Smithfield into a parking lot. Detours attempted to route heavy traffic onto U.S. 70 and U.S. 301 beginning in Selma for southbound lanes and Four Oaks for northbound lanes.
Wednesday, the county urged residents within a two- to three-mile radius of the crash to stay in their homes, keep windows closed and not to use air-conditioning units until further notice. The town also closed public parks and the Smithfield Recreational and Activities Center.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson