Three people have been killed in a multi-vehicle pileup that sent a wave of fuel and flames rushing down a highway north of Toronto, prompting motorists to run for their lives, police said Wednesday.
Provincial police confirmed the number of fatalities Wednesday evening after first responders combed through the burned-out wreckage of some 14 vehicles.
"The damage to those involved vehicles is absolutely catastrophic," OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt told reporters near the scene earlier in the day.
"There are cars everywhere, twisted transport trucks, destroyed vehicles, metal that is unrecognizable as to whether or not it is a vehicle at all or not."
Schmidt said in a tweet Wednesday evening that the highway remained closed and cleanup of the scene was underway.
The crash took place in the northbound lanes of Highway 400 south of Barrie, Ont., late Tuesday night, when police said a transport truck crashed into slowing traffic, triggering a pileup that involved at least four transport trucks and two fuel tankers that spilled thousands of litres of fuel on the road. The impact caused a fireball.
"The temperatures that were achieved in this fire are apocalyptic," Schmidt said. "It is unbelievable to see that kind of damage and destruction from a motor vehicle collision."
Police said the northbound lanes of the highway – between Country Road 88 and Highway 89 – would remain closed on Wednesday, adding the road may need to be repaired before traffic can resume.
The names of those killed have not been released. Police also said several people were injured in the crash but have since been released from hospital.
On Wednesday morning, the area around the crash was littered with twisted metal, pieces of what looked like molten debris, and the shells of burned out vehicles. The highway itself was covered in soot in areas and Schmidt said molten aluminium from the wreckage was draining down the road.
OPP commissioner Vince Hawkes, who just days earlier had sounded the alarm about fatal collisions caused by distracted truck drivers, said the latest crash could have killed many more people.
"It's a miracle that we don't have 25 bodies down there," Hawkes said, adding that he's putting the trucking industry on notice.
Luba Zariczny, 25, said she felt the heat from the towering flames from the other side of the highway as she drove past the crash on her way home to Mississauga, Ont.
"I felt a lot of heat coming off it and just a lot of cars burnt up and people just off to the side. It looked like some people tried to reverse back and then there was other cars that I could see emergency lights on so they just literally left their cars and ran," she said.
"I automatically assumed that there was definitely casualties in there, like fatalities. Just seeing how on a big scale it was, it gets you a little bit."
Officials said the fatal accident had come less than hour after a three-vehicle collision that happened a few hundred metres further north on Highway 400.
Kevin Gallant, fire chief for the neighbouring town of Bradford-West Gwillimbury, said heavy traffic from that collision likely set the scene for the pileup.
Gallant said he was on the scene of the first collision when the second one happened just before 11:30 p.m.
"When I looked to the south from the accident I was already on, all I saw was a big ball of fire," Gallant said.
Schmidt said the crash sent fuel "rolling down the highway."
"People were running for their lives to not be encompassed by the moving fire that was on the highway," he said.
Firefighters let the fuel burn itself out for 2 1/2 hours before tackling any remaining hot spots, Schmidt said. Crews from eight fire departments responded to the crash.
The cause of the collision is still under investigation, but Hawkes appeared to be laying the blame on the transport truck's driver.
"You can see that the highway is a straight stretch of highway, you can see that it's downhill, there's really no excuse for that transport truck to continue at the speeds that they did and impact the vehicles that were in the queue," he said. "And as a result of that we have the devastation that you're all well aware of."
Premier Kathleen Wynne expressed her condolences to the victims' families, calling the accident "a horrible, horrible tragedy."
"We will in the aftermath of this collision, obviously we will look at what happened, we will be advised on whether there's more that could have been done to prevent such a crash," she said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also tweeted his condolences.
"Absolutely devastating news from southern Ontario," he wrote. "My thoughts are with those who lost a loved one in the horrific crash on Highway 400."
Provincial police said last week that since Jan. 1, they have tracked more than 5,000 transport truck-related collisions that have left 67 people dead.
The Ontario Trucking Association has said the industry is committed to road safety, noting that there has been a 66 per cent decrease in the fatality rate from large truck collisions between 1995 and 2014 despite a 75 per cent rise in large truck vehicle registrations.
With files from Paola Loriggio and Michelle McQuigge in Toronto