Three people are confirmed dead after a fiery crash involving at least 14 vehicles on Highway 400 south of Barrie and Ontario Provincial Police are warning that the death toll could rise.

It happened on the northbound lanes of the highway north of Highway 88 at around 11:20 p.m. on Tuesday.

Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Kerry Schmidt says that traffic had slowed down along the highway due to a three-vehicle collision about one kilometre up the road when the pileup happened.

Schmidt said that five trucks, including two fuel tankers, were involved in the crash. Schmidt said that “massive fireballs and massive explosions” reduced most of the vehicles to “shells” with “nothing left.”

H said that “twisted transport trucks, destroyed vehicles and metal that is unrecognizable as to whether it is even a vehicle” now litter the roadway of a scene that is almost “apocalyptic.”

“It really is the most unbelievable scene I have ever seen,” he told CP24. “I don’t really know how to explain it but the people that are there on the scene right now and the first responders who were there were just shocked and amazed. It is beyond description.”

Driver inattention a possible factor

Schmidt said that while the cause of the collision remains unknown, driver inattention is being investigated as a possible leading factor.

One witness who spoke with CP24 at the scene said that he saw one commercial vehicle collide with the back of another truck that was carrying vehicles, causing a chain-reaction collision.

“The transport truck literally rolled right up the vehicle transport,” the man said. “After that I heard some popping sounds and then a loud explosion right above the roof of my vehicle. I got out and just looked back. It was just one explosion after another.

Schmidt said that both fuel trucks were “consumed by fire” following the crash.

He said that the fire then quickly spread along the highway, igniting other vehicles.

A number of people were taken to hospital following the wreck but Schmidt said that all of them have non-life threatening injuries.

Speaking with reporters at the scene on Wednesday afternoon, OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes said the accident could have been “considerably worse.”

“This could have been 100 times worse and it is a miracle that we don’t have about 25 bodies down there,” he said.

‘People were literally running for their lives

Schmidt said that seven or eight different fire departments responded to the wreck.

He said that the crews on scene ultimately decided to let the fuel burn off for environmental reasons after successfully containing the fire, a process that took about two-and-a-half hours.

“As the fuel was flowing out of the trailers, which were split wide open, the fire was rolling down the highway and that is why we initially closed it (Hwy. 400) up at Highway 9,” Schmidt said. “People were literally running for their lives to not be encompassed by the moving fire that was on the highway and was down in the ditch.”

Members of the OPP’s emergency response team are currently on scene searching the charred vehicles and Schmidt said that forensics officials will likely help with the identification of victims.

Meanwhile, answers for why the deadly crash may have occurred are few and far between.

“There is no reason why a driver, especially an elevated driver in a large vehicle, would not be able to see slowing traffic up ahead,” Schmidt said.

Call for coroner’s inquest

The collision come six day after Hawkes held a news conference to express concern about a spike in crashes involving transport trucks where inattentiveness is to blame.

At the time, Hawkes said that while most transport truck drivers utilize caution on the roads a small percentage don’t and are essentially travelling in “ticking time bombs.”

“Nobody’s life should be lost as a result of this but unfortunately it is happening time and time again and it seems to be getting worse,” Hawkes said on Wednesday. “We have to take this seriously.”

Hawkes said that collisions involving transport trucks only represent about 12 per cent of crashes on Ontario highways but account for 25 per cent of all fatalities.

“That to me is a reminder that we have to do whatever we can and work with whomever possible in order to prevent this from happening,” he said.

Given the surge in fatal wrecks, many eerily similar to the one Tuesday night, Ontario Safety League President and CEO Brian Patterson said it may be time for a coroner’s inquest.

“There is something wrong here,” he told CP24 on Wednesday, noting that more than 60 people have now died in collision involving transport trucks on Ontario highways this year. “No other sector would have this many fatalities and not have it addressed by the coroner.”

Patterson said that the coroner would be able to “bring in the best and brightest” from across the province to study the increase in collisions involving commercial vehicles.

He conceded that some trucking companies are spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on improving safety in their fleet but he said that clearly there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

“I deal with so many incredible fleets and I don’t buy that it is just the problem of truck drivers, so we have to focus on the bad apples,” he said.

Highway 400 is closed in both directions between County Road 88 and Highway 89.

South Simcoe Police say detours are in place, with southbound passenger vehicles asked to divert off of the highway at Highway 89 and head south on 5th or 10th Sideroad until they reach Highway 88.

Northbound passenger vehicles are asked to divert onto 5th or 10th Sideroad from the Highway 88 exit.

Trucks are asked to use Highway 27, west of Highway 400, between highways 88 and 89.

Schmidt said that the highway itself sustained significant damage in the fire and will likely have to be repaved.

The closure will remain in place throughout the day with a possibility that the highway may not fully reopen until tomorrow morning, according to Schmidt.