3 dead, at least 20 injured in multi-vehicle crash on I-94 near Michigan City

January 23, 2014 (MICHIGAN CITY, Ind.)

PHOTOS: 15 semis involved in I-94 crash

LaPorte County Coroner John Sullivan says one of the fatalities in the crash was a 66-year-old man from Chicago. His dog also died in the accident. The two other fatalities were a husband and wife from Grand Rapids, Mich. Sullivan says more information on the victims will be released Friday morning.

The crash occurred Thursday afternoon around 3 p.m. on eastbound I-94 near W 400 N, approximately three miles east of the Michigan City exit. Police say 46 vehicles, including 19 semi-trucks, were involved in the crash. Several passenger cars were crushed between the semis, some ending up underneath the big rigs.

"It just turned into slide-off, crash, crash, and then multiplied into what we have now," said Sgt. Ann Wojas, Indiana State Police.

All eastbound lanes of I-94 remain shutdown on Thursday night and traffic is being directed off the highway at SR 49 (Chesterton Exit) in Porter County. Two lanes are reopened heading westbound. Eastbound I-94 is expected to remain closed into the early morning hours on Friday.

As tow trucks clear I-94 one vehicle at a time, the traffic back-up is slowly subsiding. Late Thursday night, Blake O'Halloran, who barely missed being struck, was still sitting on I-94 with plenty of time to count his blessings.

"I was actually untouched. My car is not a dent on it, not a scratch on it. And I was just one of the very lucky ones," said O'Halloran.

More than a dozen 'walking wounded' hospitalized

At least 15-20 people, called the "walking wounded" because they suffered less serious injuries, were transported on a bus to IU-La Porte Hospital. First responders transported 13 people to Franciscan Alliance St. Anthony Health in Michigan City.

"Me and the other staff, we're okay, this is what we train to do," said Dr. Neil Malhotra, E.R., Franciscan Alliance Michigan City. "A lot of the stuff we saw was, as the cars piled up, people hit the steering wheel, hit their window, hit their head on the windshields."

Franciscan Hospital officials say one patient who was critically injured died, the other 12 suffered moderate and minor injuries.

"Eight of them had what we call, yellow and triage injuries, so they had broken bones and lacerations and things like that. Four had minor injuries," said James Callaghan, president, Franciscan Alliance Michigan City. "There were some children involved, but they were among the four that had minor injuries. Our information is that no children had serious injury," said Callaghan.

Remarkably, others walked away. A friend says Adam Balser was driving to Michigan so they could go snowboarding this weekend. The Chicago man survived, but his vehicle was left crumpled.

"After I saw the photo and after I saw what was broadcasting online and on TV, he told me in the phone call, he's like 'I feel lucky to be alive.' And after I saw the photo, I totally agreed with him," said Stephen Fletcher, crash victim's friend.

Driver Mary Sebert witnessed the end of this deadly crash. She was crossing a bridge over the expressway. To her left, she saw traffic was stopped. Then she looked to her right.

"The only moving vehicle I saw was that semi sliding sideways. All the other ones in the front were already mangled. Not only did you have the snow coming down, it was blowing. I really think what it was that they couldn't see that the traffic in front of them was stopped. And as they approached it they probably saw taillights or whatever and tried to stop," said Sebert.

First responders rescue motorists trapped in wreckage

As the sun set earlier Thursday evening, lights on towers were brought in to aid in the search for others who may be trapped in the wreckage. More than three hours after the crash, three people were extricated from the middle of the wreckage. Indiana State Police said at the time that only one injured person remained on I-94 and firefighters were working to extricate that person.

"At this point, anybody being taken out alive is probably nothing short of a miracle," said LaPorte County Coroner John Sullivan said.

LaPorte County Coroner John Sullivan says one of the fatalities in the crash was a 66-year-old man from Chicago. His dog also died in the accident. The two other fatalities were a husband and wife from Grand Rapids, Mich. Sullivan says more information on the victims will be released Friday morning.

"We removed vehicles and accessed some people that have been previously trapped. We're addressing those as we come to those, we have no idea how many others may still be located somewhere in the wreckage," said Lt. Peter Wood, Indiana State Police. "Right now the challenges are the cold and the darkness."

"It's looking grim. There may be many more fatalities," Coroner Sullivan said. "The clock is working against us."

Heavy equipment was brought in to assist in extrication efforts on Thursday afternoon. More people were feared to be trapped inside the vehicles underneath the semis.

"They're getting to them as quick as they can, with cranes, wreckers, extrication. There's multiple fire departments out there, doing the best they can," Coroner Sullivan said. "There's just so much destruction, they have to tear apart those vehicles and semis and move them little by little to see if there is a car underneath them, or under a trailer."

Sullivan says teams of coroners from surrounding counties were called to the scene. Sullivan said his team would open a temporary morgue just in case.

Authorities brought in warming buses for those who were not as seriously injured in the crash.

The LaPorte County HAZMAT team responded to the scene as well. Flourescent green diesel fuel from ruptured semi tanks made the scene slippery and hazardous, Coroner Sullivan said.

Witnesses say heavy lake effect snow was falling at the time of the accident, creating white-out conditions.

"The driving conditions were getting pretty bad. All the traffic from 94 is all backed up through town," said Jena Karras, who stopped to take pictures from the overpass.

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