Officials probe whether trucker in Georgia crash fell asleep

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A couple traveling to celebrate back-to-back birthdays and a woman and her teenage cousin on their way to visit the girl's hospitalized father were among five people killed in a fiery crash on a Georgia interstate Tuesday afternoon.

A tractor-trailer smashed into two cars and burst into flames on I-16 west of Savannah. The crash happened on a busy stretch of the interstate near its junction with I-95, which spans the East Coast.

"It's just a traumatic shock for the whole family," said Linda Earnest, whose brother-in-law, 71-year-old Jerry Earnest of Varnell, perished in the crash along with his girlfriend, Glenda Adams, 72, of Cohutta.

Jerry Earnest and Adams both had birthdays earlier in the week, his sister-in-law said, and decided to celebrate by driving from their homes near the Georgia-Tennessee state line to spend several days in Savannah.

Wendy Melton, 39, of Reidsville was riding with her cousin, Brittanie Altman, 16, of Claxton and Virgil Moody, 19, of Hagan, when they were killed.

Melton's brother, Tray Riner, said she was driving Altman to visit her father who was hospitalized in an intensive care unit in Savannah. Melton worked as a waitress to support her six children, ages 9 to 23, Riner said.

"She was a devoted mother. Her world revolved around her kids and her two grandkids," Riner said. "Her children, they're all to pieces."

Riner said he didn't know Moody, the second passenger riding with Melton.

Traffic had been halted by construction in the area before the crash, and police said witnesses reported seeing the tractor-trailer drift between lanes before the crash. Authorities are investigating whether the truck driver fell asleep at the wheel, said Georgia State Patrol Sgt. 1st Class Chris Nease.

"That is a possibility that we're looking into, that he had dozed off," Nease said. "We don't know that for a fact."

State Patrol officials said the tractor trailer sideswiped one car and ran into the Hyundai that Melton and the two teens were riding in. The car carrying Melton and the two teens was knocked into the median, Nease said. Two of the victims were ejected.

Adams and Earnest died in a second vehicle that was crushed between the big truck and another eighteen-wheeler, Nease said.

Linda Earnest said her brother-in-law had retired from his job at a north Georgia carpet factory just a few months ago.

"He was a loving father and he loved golf and his family," she said.

The truck driver survived the crash without serious injuries. The State Patrol has said no charges will be filed until after its investigation is complete. The crash damaged seven vehicles and prompted lane closures near the freeway's meeting point with I-95.

Tuesday's deadly collision happened less than a month after another crash involving a tractor-trailer on I-16 that killed five nursing students from Georgia Southern University. The earlier wreck April 22 happened less than 20 miles west of Tuesday's crash.

"It's so eerily similar, looking at them overall, it's scary," Nease said. "The biggest problem with most people is they're just being inattentive and distracted, and not necessarily by cellphones. It can be anything."

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