MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. — Cars were mangled, and some were burned despite the blowing snow. Other vehicles were crushed between jackknifed semi-tractors, so entwined 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 became 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 Coolspring Township Fire Chief Mick 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 first responders were expecting worse.
“We’re lucky that there wasn’t 20 people dead and three people injured,” he said.