Kentucky State Police were investigating whether distracted driving caused a tractor-trailer to plow into an SUV carrying eight people on Saturday, killing six and possibly triggering a serious crash on the opposite side of the highway.
The truck driver is "telling us that he saw the vehicle that was in front of him and he hit the brakes and he didn't hit them in time," Master Trooper Norman Chaffins said. " ... There was a reason for that and we're trying to figure out what the reason was."
The late-morning crash was followed 15 minutes later by a multi-vehicle crash on the opposite side of Interstate 65 that injured three people. The site was just 15 miles from where 11 people died in 2010 when a tractor-trailer crossed the median and hit a van carrying a Mennonite family. Ten people in the van were killed along with the truck driver and the National Transportation Safety Board determined the truck driver was distracted by his cell phone.
Chaffins said despite snow flurries, weather was not a factor in Saturday's crashes. The driver was identified as 47-year-old Ibrahim Fetic of Troy, Mich. Police were looking at his driving logs and collected a blood sample.
The six killed were identified as members of an extended family from Marion, Wis.
They were identified as driver James Gollnow, 62, and his wife, Barbara Gollnow, 62; Marion Champnoise, 92, a friend; Sarina Gollnow, 18, relationship unknown; and foster children Gabriel Zumig, 10, and Soledad Smith, 8.
The two survivors were also foster children. Police identified them as Hope Hoth, 15, who was transported to a hospital in Lexington with burns and a broken spine; and Aidian Ejnik, 12, who was taken to Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville with cuts to the back of his head.
Chaffins described both of the children's injuries as non-life-threatening.
The two crashes shut down the busy stretch of highway for about five hours. The first happened at 11:13 a.m. EST on northbound I-65 south of Elizabethtown. In the second crash, four vehicles collided at the same location on the southbound side.
Chaffins said in the first crash, a 1999 Ford Expedition was hit from behind and then hit the car in front of it, but the driver of that vehicle had only minor injuries. The Expedition was returning to Wisconsin after a trip to Orlando, Fla.
The Expedition was "totally engulfed in flames. It was totally destroyed by the fire," he said, adding, "It's just a charred mess."
He said one eyewitness told police two people emerged from the blaze and one appeared to be on fire.
The driver of the tractor-trailer was not injured and was cooperating with police, Chaffins said. "He's obviously pretty torn up about everything."
The southbound crash involved a tractor-trailor and three other vehicles. Police were investigating whether rubbernecking was the cause.
"That's what we're suspecting, that people were looking at the crash that happened on the other side and became distracted and caused a chain-reaction crash," he said.
Those injured in the second crash were taken to hospitals but were not identified.
Update Saturday at 4:02 p.m.:
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has just announced that all lanes in I-65 in Hardin County have been re-opened following two late morning crashes that claimed a total of six lives.
The announcement says while all lanes are now open, it will take some time for backups to clear from the exits. The wrecks occurred between Sonora and Glendale in southern Hardin County.
Update at 3:09 p.m.:
Kentucky State Police say six people are dead following two wrecks on I-65 in the Hardin County area.
The wrecks took place just a few minutes apart late Saturday morning near mile marker 83. The first accident happened in the northbound lanes at 11:13 a.m., and claimed five lives.
The second wreck, in the southbound lanes, occurred just 16 minutes later, with one person confirmed dead.
Mile marker 83 is in southern Hardin County, between the towns of Sonora and Glendale.
Fatal crashes on Interstate 65 have closed both directions of the road Saturday afternoon, and motorists caught in the aftermath are being detoured off the interstate between Sonora and Glendale via US 31-W.
Northbound traffic is being detoured off I-65 at Exit 81 in Sonora.
Southbound traffic is being detoured off I-65 at Exit 86 in Glendale.
A suggested alternate route to avoid sitting in extremely lengthy delays is the use of the Western Kentucky Parkway and the William H. Natcher Parkway.
Traveling Northbound on I-65:
•Exit I-65 northbound at the Natcher Parkway North\Exit 20B.
•At mile marker 43, exit right towards Elizabethtown.
•Follow signs on WK Parkway east bound until juncture of parkway and I-65.
•Exit northbound to I-65.
Traveling Southbound on I-65:
•Exit I-65 southbound at the WK Parkway\Exit 91.
•At mile marker 77, exit south towards Bowling Green.
•Follow signs on the Natcher Parkway southbound until juncture of parkway and I-65.
•Exit southbound to I-65.
Further updates will be provided as more information becomes available.