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I-94 Pileup Survivor Praises Rescuers Who Peeled Wreckage Away

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(CBS) – An Ada, Mich. man is telling how first-responders peeled away layer upon layer of crushed metal over three hours to rescue him from Thursday’s horrific pileup on Interstate 94 in Northwest Indiana.

Jeff Rennell was among the motorists caught up in the tangle of nearly four dozen semi-tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles near Michigan City. Whiteout conditions were blamed for the 2:30 p.m. accident, which left three motorists dead and several injured in the eastbound lanes, stopping traffic for hours.

“The airbag went off and took my glasses, gave me a bloody nose,” Rennell says of the first moments of the pileup. “After that, it was really pretty quiet. Just people yelling for help, myself included, saying, ‘I’m over here! I’m over here!’”

Rennell says his Ford Explorer had collapsed around him. He found himself wedged under a semi-truck’s gas tank, with the larger vehicle’s still-warm radiator near his head.

“I didn’t panic,” he told reporters Friday at his Michigan home. “I basically went, ‘I got my arms, I got my legs.’ Everything’s fine, but my feet were almost shackled together, and I couldn’t move them.”

Rennell praises the 15 first-responders who converged upon what was left of his vehicle. They worked tirelessly with the so-called “Jaws of Life” to strip away layers of metal.

“It was like an onion. They went layer by layer by layer by layer,” he says.

All the while, his rescuers asked if he was doing OK.

“They said, ‘We’re not leaving tonight ‘til you get out of this car,’” Rennell says.

Eventually, they got  him out. Rennell says he was suffering from hypothermia and was transported to Oak Lawn, Ill. for medical care. Still, he says he was in surprisingly good condition.

The motorist says he feels sorry about the loss of life that occurred. The accident, for him, reinforced a principle he already espouses: Appreciate every day you have with loved ones. In his case — his wife and children.

Says Rennell: “A lot of people, it takes something like this to wake them up. But I’ve always said you’ve got to focus on the most important things, instead of these little things that seem important at the time.”

One first-responder said it was a miracle the number of dead and the number of those who survived the pileup weren’t reversed.

Just two victims of the chain-reaction crash were still in hospitals tonight: one in South Bend, Ind. and another in Michigan City.

Donovan Stewart had a frightening view from inside the pile up. He was a passenger in a truck that skidded across the ice and into the back of a semi.

“The bumper of the semi fell off, pierced the door, stabbed my friend on the leg,” he says.

While Donovan was among those who walked away from the crash, Henry Imboden was one of the more than 20 who didn’t.

The retired electrician from Merrillville, Ind. told friends and family from his hospital bed his Ford Fusion ended up wedged between semis.

The 79-year-old had to be air-lifted from the scene.

“He’s alive and he’s safe. I would say he’s in reasonably good shape considering what he’s been through,” friend Robert Toby said.

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