SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WNCN) — First responders had to evacuate people who were within two miles of burning wreckage left from an Interstate 95 crash near exit 95 involving a tractor-trailer hauling hazardous materials Wednesday, officials said.
Those between two and three miles from the wreck were told to shelter in place, officials said. Town officials said the best and safest course of action is to allow the wreckage to continue to burn. The wreckage was expected to burn into the wee hours of the morning, officials said.
Cleveland and Princeton high schools are being used to shelter the displaced. The county’s schools are opening two hours late Thursday, as are the county’s government offices. Town offices in Smithfield will open at 10 a.m.
Drivers are advised to avoid the area. Interstate 95 northbound reopened in the area of the crashes just before 5 a.m. Thursday, more than 12 hours after the highway was shut down.
Southbound lanes remain closed between the Interstate 40 interchange (exit 81) and U.S. Route 70 (exit 97). Those lanes may remain closed until 8 a.m. Friday morning.
“There are other chemicals on the truck that are producing a smoke that can be toxic, and people need to take this very, very seriously,” Jeremy Daughtry of the Smithfield Fire Department said.
The wreck, which happened at about 1:30 p.m., caused an explosion and burned for hours and hours, officials said. The tractor-trailer was hauling an acidic substance, Daughtry said. Officials decided to let the fire burn out on its own, According to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Some drivers who were stuck in their cars near the wreck were told to leave their cars and evacuate, Daughtry said.
The stretch of road between exits 81 and 97 has been closed by a series of three accidents, including the one involving the hazardous materials. At least two people have died and at least one more is in the hospital with unknown injuries, according to the N.C. Highway Patrol.
The first wreck happened when a tractor trailer driving south on I-95 near mile-marker 90 went off the right shoulder into the tree line, pinning the driver, according to Lt. Jeff Gordon of the highway patrol.
Investigators believe onlookers in the northbound lane caused traffic to slow, which then led to a recreational vehicle running into the back of a tractor trailer near mile-marker 95, Gordon said. The tractor-trailer was carrying a solid corrosive material, which ignited upon impact, the lieutenant said.
In a wreck near mile-marker 88 on I-95 northbound, a recreational vehicle was rear-ended by a tractor trailer, then spun and was hit by another tractor trailer. The second tractor trailer then rear ended a passenger car, which in turn rear-ended a third tractor trailer, Gordon said.
Two people inside the recreation vehicle were killed, Gordon said. A third person from the vehicle was sent to a hospital. All other injuries from that wreck are believed to be non-life-threatening, he said.
Johnston County Community College was evacuated at about 2 p.m. All classes for the remainder of the day and night were cancelled.
The Johnston County school system evacuated its central office, early college, middle college and south campus facilities.
Law enforcement contacted the school district recommending the evacuations, system spokeswoman Tracey Peedin Jones said.
Workers will have to assess the roadway for damage before it can be reopened, state transportation officials said.
Evacuees, ranging from residents who got a call telling them to leave to motorists told to leave their cars on I-95, were first directed to the nearby First Baptist Church Ministry Center, which served temporarily as a shelter.
Q.K. Wall and his wife received a call telling them to evacuate the area.
“Actually, my mind, I was concerned about my wife. I also have a young lady that’s helping her. So, we got her out of the house, and we got her here. But, my concern is, how long will we have to be out?” Wall said.
About 40 people were at the shelter by about 4:30 p.m.
The evacuation advisory was lifted at 2:45 a.m. Thursday, but the two shelters remain open.
The Highway Patrol released detours around the closure:
Motorists going south on I-95 are being detoured onto U.S. 70 West (exit 97) in Selma and can take U.S. 70 bypass to reach I-40, and then go east to return to I-95 at exit 81.