PHOTOS: I-94 crash includes 19 semis
Three people were killed and more than a dozen were injured in the crash Thursday afternoon on I-94 near Michigan City, Ind. Crews worked overnight to clear the wreckage and reopened 14 miles of eastbound lanes Friday morning.
LaPorte County Coroner John Sullivan said Jerry Dalrymple, a 65-year-old man from the 9100-block of S. Bell St. in Chicago, was driving from Chicago to LaPorte when he was killed in the crash. He was pronounced dead on the scene. His dog, Sparky, also died in the accident.
Dalrymple, of the Beverly neighborhood, had four children and four grandchildren. Family members say Dalrymple worked at a downtown Chicago bank and was driving out to LaPorte to check on his summer home, where he planned to retire.
"We all have a time, maybe it's good that we don't know," said the victim's sister, Deanna Dalrymple. "He lived his life like he didn't know. And he enjoyed himself, and he loved his family. He was a very compassionate man. He loved his family and everything was family to him."
The two other fatalities were a husband and wife from Grand Rapids, Mich. Thomas Wolma, 67, was pronounced dead at Franciscan St. Anthony; his wife, Marilyn Wolma, 65, was pronounce dead on the scene. Authorities say the couple was headed home after caring for a relative in Wisconsin.
All three died of blunt force trauma after their vehicles were struck by semis, the coroner said.
Sullivan said it was lucky more people weren't killed.
"When you look down at that scene, they were still extricating live patients three hours after the accident and bringing them out on backboards at 6 p.m. last night in those crushed cars. So overall, three is too many. We wish we had zero, but we could have had many more," Sullivan said.
22 injured, 2 critically, in crash involving 46 vehicles
Twenty-two people were injured – two of them critically - in the accident involving 46 vehicles. Officials said that included 18 semis, two pickup trucks, and 26 passenger cars.
Some people were trapped in cars underneath the semis trucks and trailers.
"It was such a devastating scene you don't know where to start, but when people are stuck in their cars, they think you're Moses. You can part the water. Save us," Cool Springs, Ind., Fire Chief Mick Pawlik said. "It'll live with us forever, it's something you'll never forget."
From car to car, firefighters bounced, reassuring the trapped and keeping them warm with blankets an hot packs as responders worked to free them. One of those trapped was Jeff Rennell of Michigan. It was no easy rescue for emergency crews. His SUV was on top of another car that had a fatality inside and under a semi-tractor. Rennell couldn't even move.
"I didn't panic. I basically went, I've got my arms. I've got my legs. Everything's fine. But my feet were almost shackled together and I couldn't move them. [It was] like they were handcuffed at the bottom of the car. But I was like, I'm OK. And then I started yelling for help," Rennell said.
"I had never seen anything like it. The front of the car was literally about two feet wide and it was all crushed in and on top of his legs," Warren Smith, Coolspring Fire Department, said.
Rennell's extrication took the longest- three hours. Smith used the jaws of life to drop the floorboard of Rennell's car to free Rennell's legs and then the rest of him.
"At one point, my gloves were all wet, my fingers frozen. But I look down at this guy, and I say, 'I ain't cold. This guy's cold. I don't know what cold is.' Suck it up," Smith said.
Crews worked for three hours on the wreckage surrounding Rennell.
"They were awesome. There's 15 guys trying to get me out for three hours, and they said we're not leaving tonight until we get you out of this car. We're gonna get you out of this car," Rennell said.
"He looked at me and he said thank you so much," Smith said, "thought he wanted to kiss me."
Rennell, calm throughout, received some cuts, a sprained ankle, and a hairline crack on his fibula.
"Very trying for all the first responders, fighting the cold, fighting the hazardous materials spills, the diesel spills, and the mental trauma of the whole scene like that. A lot of those firemen probably hadn't -- those are volunteer departments, hadn't seen stuff like. I haven't seen an accident like this in our county in years, if ever, looking at the destruction and mangling of the cars. But that just goes to show you what the band of lake-effect snow will do," Sullivan said.
Low visibility, snowy conditions
Indiana State Police say the snow came down too fast for road crews to keep up Wednesday night-- but there was never talk of shutting down the roadway, as conditions weren't that bad when snow removal crews moved through the area just 20 minutes before the crash.
But the weather turned on a dime. Snow and whiteout conditions were contributing factors to the crash, state police said late Thursday night. A band of heavy lake-effect snow was reported on Thursday afternoon when the pileup began, dropping 1 to 2 inches of snow per hour and reducing visibility to a quarter-mile or less, National Weather Service meteorologist Evan Bentley said.
"Zero visibility and glazed-over roadway, only for a short time. If you would have gone three miles east or three miles west, the sun was shining and it was dry pavement. That's wintertime in northwest Indiana and Illinois," Sullivan said. "It can go from traveling 70 miles per hour with the sun shining to just zero visibility and not being able to control your car and involving like this all in one mile of travel, and that's just exactly what happened."
The eastbound lanes of I-94 were closed for 14 miles as cranes and wreckers helped clear the scene and investigators tried to determine the chain of events, state police said, noting the investigation could take several weeks. The last vehicle, a semi, was removed around 6 a.m. Friday.