MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. Slick roads caused a massive pile-up on Interstate 94 near Michigan City on Thursday.
Officials say about 46 vehicles were involved. Of the 46 vehicles involved, 18 of those were semis, two were straight trucks and the rest were passenger cars.
The accident happened in the east bound lane of 94, near mile marker 36, just west of the 421 interchange. Three people were pronounced dead, two people are critically injured and 20 more hurt.
The victims have been identified as 65-year-old Jerry Dalrymple, of Chicago. He died at the scene of blunt force trauma. His pet golden retriever also died in the crash.
A Grand Rapids couple also died in the crash. They were returning from taking care of a relative in Wisconsin. 65-year-old Marilyn Wolma died on the scene. Her husband, 67-year-old Thomas Wolma, died later at the hospital.
The two who are critically injured have been identified as 79-year-old Henry Imboden, of Merrillville and 48-year-old Jeffrey Rennell, of Ada, Michigan.
During Friday mornings press conference, officials said crews were responding to several slide-offs and accidents throughout the day, Thursday.
They also said there was a full call out of crews salting and plowing I-94 the entire day. In fact, crews had just gone through the crash site about 20 minutes before the crash happened, both salting and plowing.
It will take weeks, even months for the investigation to wrap up, so until then officials they won’t know what exactly happened.
What they did say was when you have people travelling from conditions clear enough to be travelling at 70 mph to then hitting a band of snow at that high rate of speed, you could have problems if the vehicle or people don’t respond correctly.
Unfortunately, with the horrible weather conditions and that band of snow, drivers experienced some issues.
Lt. Jerry Williams of the Indiana State Police said the weather conditions weren't bad enough to close down the highway. However, a sudden whiteout likely swept across the interstate, causing drivers to lose control.
The pileup that resulted was like a "warzone" said Chief Mick Pawlik of the Coolspring Twp. Volunteer Fire Department.
"The hardest thing for our fireman is trying to prioritize who you extricate first. It's hard to leave one person to go check on someone else," Pawlik explained.
A sense of humor and a kind demeanor goes a long way when dealing with crises. Pawlik said he tried to make every victim feel like a priority as EMS worked to free them from trapped vehicles.
Joline Kochopolous watched the scene unfold from the window of her Michigan City home. Kochopolous lives just a stones throw from the interstate and said it's not uncommon to hear tires blowout or minor collisions.
Thursday night Kochopolous said they heard "something," but it wasn't until they saw flashing lights that they realized this pileup was of a different magnitude. She put on her boots, forgetting her socks, and quickly ran to the side of the highway.
"It was like a movie," Kochopolous explained, she saw car after car stop and pileup. One man ran down her street, jumped the fence to the interstate and rescued his family. The man's wife told Kochopolous many people lost their windshields in the accident and were freezing from the below-zero temperatures.
The Red Cross was on scene to offer backup assistance. Six volunteers brought hot chocolate, hamburgers and blankets to folks in need.
After the crash buses were brought in to transport other victims from the scene for treatment. They were also there to provide a warming center for folks who lost their cars. Those people who were unable to drive were taken to area hotels and train stations.
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Cars were mangled, and some were burned despite the blowing snow. Other vehicles were crushed between jackknifed semi-tractors, so entwined that it was difficult to tell them apart.
People were screaming, but emergency responders couldn't see many of them as they quickly tended the victims amid frigid conditions.
Within seconds, traffic along snow-covered Interstate 94 in northern Indiana had become a mile-long pile of debris after whiteout conditions swept in during Thursday's evening commute. Three people were killed and nearly two dozen were injured.
"It was such a devastating scene, you don't know where to start," said Pawlik, whose volunteer crew was among the first on the scene about 60 miles south of Chicago.
"There were people in cars that you couldn't even see," Pawlik said during a news conference Friday. "But when people are stuck in their cars, they look at you like we're Moses. `Part the water. Save us.'"
Rescue crews quickly set about prioritizing the victims. Who needed help first? And who was beyond help?
Firefighters worked quickly to keep the victims warm while they extricated them. Just as importantly, Pawlik tried to take their minds off what had happened - even though the dead weighed on his and other first responders' minds.
"Those are the worst," Pawlik said. "You sit there - they're the last ones to get out but you know they're there."
The chain-reaction collision near Michigan City was triggered by a sudden burst of heavy lake-effect snow that took drivers by surprise, said Indiana State Police Lt. Jerry Williams. Within about 45 seconds, dozens of vehicles - including numerous other trucks - were crashing into one another.
The accident killed Chicago resident Jerry Dalrymple, 65, and a Michigan couple: Thomas Wolma, 67, and his 65-year-old wife, Marilyn, of Grand Rapids. More than 20 people were injured, including one who remained in critical condition Friday.
Pawlik said the scene was "something that you'll never forget. It'll live with us forever." But he acknowledged that first responders were expecting worse.
"We're lucky that there wasn't 20 people dead and three people injured," he said.
Among the survivors was Jeffrey Rennell, who was driving home to Michigan from a business meeting in Chicago when his SUV suddenly started bouncing off other vehicles like a ping pong ball. Firefighters found it on top of another vehicle and "encased in semis," Pawlik said.
Rennell was trapped for more than three hours in the twisted remains of his Ford Explorer, according to his brother, Steve Rennell. He said his 48-year-old brother told him he wasn't able to move much while trapped in his SUV, but he didn't think his injury was serious.
"There were other people around that he knew weren't all right," Steve Rennell said.
Pawlik said Rennell's extrication was the worst of the five or six that crews did Thursday night.
He kept talking to Rennell throughout the process, even making the Michigan man laugh when he told him: "Jeff, it's after 5 o'clock, and when we get you out I'm going to take you out for a beer."
Instead, Rennell was airlifted to a Chicago hospital, where he was treated for a broken leg and released. He was headed back to Michigan on Friday to be reunited with his wife and two children, ages 5 and 3.
"It was a miracle out there," Pawlik said. "I never want to see it again."
Indiana State Police Sgt. Ann Wojas said the investigation into the crash could take months.
But officials defended the actions of highway crews and praised the efforts of first responders, who spent hours tending to the injured along a frigid mile-long stretch of road.
Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Deitchley said crews had been out salting and plowing the area about 20 minutes before the crash. The roads were slick, but conditions didn't warrant closing the road, he said.