Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
A multiple-vehicle crash Thursday in Michigan City, Ind., that killed three people and injured more than 20 others, including two critically, could have been much worse, emergency management officials said Friday.
"It was like a war zone out there," Chief Mick Pawlik of the Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department said at a morning news conference. "We're lucky the roles weren't reversed, that there weren't 20 fatalities and three injuries."
The massive pileup involving 46 vehicles - including two box trucks and 18 semi-trailers -- occurred in snow and whiteout conditions near Michigan City, about 60 miles from Chicago. Indiana State Police Cpl. Larry Koebcke said the eastbound lanes of Interstate 94 were still closed Friday morning as workers used cranes and workers to clear the scene. Officials said they hoped to reopen those lanes later today.
Indiana authorities identified the victims as Thomas Wolma, 67, and his wife, Marilyn, 65, of Grand Rapids, Mich., who were returning home after caring for a relative in Wisconsin, and Jerry Dalrymple, 65, of Chicago, who was killed along with his dog.
Michigan City Mayor Ron Meer said one of his primary concerns initially was providing assistance to "folks who weren't injured but their vehicles were towed away," leaving them stranded in the cold. "We were able to get people into hotels, get them to train stations," he said.
Indiana State Police Lt. Jerry Williams said eastbound travelers were driving at highway speed when they encountered an "unpredictable" scenario. "As the people came into the whiteout conditions, it became that situation where they couldn't see each other as the vehicles came into the white-out environment."
He said chaplains were brought to the scene to assist motorists - and emergency workers. "These are the types of scenes that most of us see only once or twice in our careers," he said.
Drivers stuck in the backup Thursday could only wait and try to stay warm as temperatures hovered around 10 degrees.
Stacey Johnson, 37, had a family emergency and was traveling from western Michigan to Tennessee with her three sons, ages 3, 9 and 10. She told The Associated Press she'd researched road conditions before leaving because she was worried about the weather. She didn't know about the accident until traffic started crawling and then stopped.
Nearly five hours later, long after she'd planned to stop for dinner, her car was still sitting on the westbound side of the highway. A woman in the car next to hers noticed she had children with her and offered cereal, popcorn and fruit to tide them over.
Scott Collins, 17, of Chesterton, Ind., was riding in a car with three other teens and saw the crash happen just behind them.
"One of the semis started sliding and I think it jackknifed in the middle of the road" and collided with another semi, he said. "After that happened, multiple semis locked up. ... We were pretty nervous."