UPDATED: 1/24/2014 – 10:22 a.m.
MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. (CBS) — Crews have reopened the eastbound lanes of Interstate 94 in Northwest Indiana, more than 18 hours after a massive chain-reaction crash killed three people, and injured more than 20 others.
I-94 was shut down between Exit 26 and Exit 40 Thursday afternoon, after nearly four dozen vehicles were involved in a pileup near Michigan City, Ind., amid whiteout conditions.
CBS 2’s Courtney Gousman reports crews spent more than 18 hours pulling injured victims out of vehicles, removing the wrecked cars and trucks, cleaning up debris, and then clearing the road of snow and ice before reopening the eastbound lanes of I-94 between Michigan City and the Michigan state line around 9 a.m. Friday. Eastbound I-94 between Michigan City and Chesterton reopened by 10 a.m. Friday.
It took about four hours just to get everyone out of their vehicles, because of how badly damaged they were.
“Our challenges, of course, was first getting to all our injuries parties, and identifying those folks, and getting them the emergency assistance they need,” said Indiana State Police Lt. Jerry Williams.
Police on Friday identified the three people who died: Marilyn Wolma, 65, and Thomas Wolma, 67, a couple from Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Jerry Dalrymple, 65 of Chicago.
Two people were critically injured and 20 others suffered less-severe injuries.
The last of the vehicles involved in the wreck was towed away around 6:30 a.m. Friday, but crews still needed to clean up plenty of debris from the crash, and then scrape and treat the icy roadway before allowing traffic to go through again.
Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Deitchley said, although there was heavy snow at the time of the crash, the conditions on the interstate were not as bad as earlier this month, when the state shut down portions of I-80/94 and I-65 due to blowing snow and extremely limited visibility.
Crews had salted and plowed the area 20 minutes before the accident happened.
“Those whiteout conditions happened so quickly. Our crews had been out there, and as our crews were out there, they were salting and plowing, and the conditions were such that they were slick, but that’s not uncommon for any kind of a snow event,” he said. “So at that point there wasn’t a talk of closing that road down, simply because whiteout conditions weren’t warranting that at that time.”
LaPorte County Coroner John Sullivan called the fatal scene – filled with mangled trucks and cars – “very grim.”
Around 2:30 p.m., vehicles were sliding off the highway due to very low visibility and a slick road surface, because of blowing snow. As total of 46 vehicles, including 18 semi-trailer trucks were involved in a chain reaction crash near Michigan City, pinning several motorists inside their vehicles.
Dalrymple was pronounced dead at the scene. His dog also died in the crash.
Marilyn Wolma was also was pronounced dead at the scene. Her husband, Thomas Wolma, was taken to Franciscan St. Anthony Health in Michigan City, where he died shortly after the crash.
More than 20 other people were hurt in the crash, and were taken to local hospitals to be treated for contusions and broken bones. Many of those who were injured had to be rescued from their vehicles, when they became trapped in the wreckage from the massive pileup. Some cars ended up pinned under truck trailers, or crushed between semis.
One of the firefighters who helped the rescue effort said the crash site was “like a war zone.”
“It was such a devastating scene, you don’t know where to start,” said Mick Pawlik, a fire chief with the Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department. “It was tough out there, especially for a fireman … trying to prioritize who you extricate first. It’s hard to leave one person, and go to check on someone else, but I tell you everybody that was out there worked as a well-oiled machine.”
Given how badly damaged some of the vehicles were, Pawlik said, “We’re lucky that there wasn’t 20 people dead, and three people injured.”
He said emergency workers can’t afford to show any fear or panic as they work to pull people out of the wrecked vehicles.
“When people are stuck in their cars, they look at you like we’re Moses — part the waters, save us,” Pawlik said.
He said he got to know a few of the people he helped remove from crushed vehicles, including 48-year-old Jeffrey Rennell of Ada, Mich., who “was encased in semis,” according to Pawlik.
Pawlik said it took about two hours to free Rennell from the wreckage, “and I kept apologizing to him.”
“I said Jeff, I says ‘You’re making us work for our money here tonight’ just to make humor, to get his mind off of where he was, and what was going on,” Pawlik said. “I said, ‘Jeff, it’s after five o’clock, but when we get you out, I’m going to take you out for a beer, my friend.’”
Rennell was airlifted to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. He was released from the hospital by Friday morning.
Authorities sent buses to the scene to rescue motorists who are stuck in the extreme cold.
Michigan City provided two city buses, which were being used to transport injured motorists and passengers to area hospitals and for a warming station.
An investigation into the exact cause of crash could take weeks or months, but police said lake effect snow that is common for the region is likely a factor, along with whiteout conditions on the road.