MICHIGAN CITY | Coolspring Township Fire Chief Mick Pawlik arrived Thursday to a mile of devastation on Interstate 94 near Michigan City.
He recalled Friday at a news conference how he and other responders tried to work as quick as possible to rescue motorists involved in a 46-vehicle pileup.
"It was like a war zone," Pawlik said. "We're lucky there wasn't 20 people dead and three people injured."
The multiple-vehicle crash that killed three people and injured nearly two dozen people happened about 3 p.m. between the 35.5 mile marker and the 36.5 mile marker. The pileup occurred as a thin band of lake-effect snow quickly created white-out conditions, blinding drivers on the six-lane interstate.
The damage was so severe that Pawlik said responders couldn't tell in some cases that a person was among the wreckage. He made small talk with people trapped in vehicles to keep them calm.
He told a woman named Judy that she was his priority. He gave her his hood and brought her blankets.
It took two hours to extricate a man named Jeff. Pawlik tried to keep Jeff's mind off the severity of what was going on by joking with him that he was really making firefighters work for their money.
"It was such a devastating scene you don't know where to start, but when people are stuck in their cars, they look at you like we're Moses," Pawlik said. "Part the water. Save us."
The victims of the crash were identified as Jerry Dalrymple, 65, of Chicago, and husband and wife Thomas Wolma, 67 and Marilyn Wolma, 65, both of Grand Rapids, Mich., said John Sullivan, LaPorte County coroner.
Dalrymple was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash from blunt force trauma, Sullivan said. Dalrymple's black Labrador, Sparky, also was killed in the crash.
Dalrymple was heading to Chicago from LaPorte when the crash happened.
The Wolmas were returning home to Grand Rapids, Mich., after caring for a sick, elderly relative in Wisconsin, a relative told Sullivan.
Thomas Wolma was transported to Franciscan St. Anthony Health Hospital in Michigan City, where he was pronounced dead of blunt force trauma, Sullivan said. Marilyn Wolma was pronounced dead at the scene of blunt force trauma.
The Wolmas and Dalrymple were all in passenger vehicles at the time of the crash, Sullivan said.
The westbound lanes of I-94 reopened Friday after closing shortly after the 2:21 p.m. pileup. All eastbound lanes reopened about 10 a.m. Friday.
The cleanup efforts involved dozens of crews from LaPorte, Porter and Berrien County, Mich. It took workers until 5 a.m. Friday to clear all the vehicles from the interstate.
Indiana State Police said it could take weeks to months for a complete report on the crash.
Lt. Jerry Williams, district commander of the Indiana State Police in Lowell, said there was not much law enforcement officers and state highway officials could do to prevent such a horrific crash. Williams said the communication about weather and road conditions was constant since the morning.
The snow began falling so quickly, the plows could not keep up, Williams said. He said crews had gone through the area about 20 minutes before the crash happened.
Eighteen of the vehicles were semitrucks and some wound up on top of passenger vehicles, trapping occupants. Dozens of firefighters and other rescue personnel worked to free those trapped by ripping open sheets of twisted metal and breaking glass. Images of the crash scene show debris that at times no longer resembled a vehicle.
None of the rescuers at a news conference at Michigan City City Hall saw any children in the pileup.
Indiana State Police Sgt. Ann Wojas said the injured were transported to Porter Regional Hospital in Valparaiso, Indiana University Health and Franciscan St. Anthony Health in Michigan City.
Bill Bero, regional media relations specialist for Franciscan St. Anthony Health hospital in Michigan City, said three adults were admitted to the hospital in fair condition. Thirteen others were treated and released.
Henry Imboden, 79, of Merrillville, and Jeffrey Rennell, 48, of Ada, Mich., were critically injured, Wojas said.
Due to the bitter cold Thursday, buses from Michigan City and LaPorte were called in to serve as warming centers for rescuers and those who were not injured. The buses also took those who were not injured to local hotels, restaurants, train stations and other shelters.
Michigan City Mayor Ron Meer said about 30 people were brought to City Hall and fed.
Emergency responders also filled vehicles with gas for motorists stranded on the interstate and running low on fuel, allowing them to run their engines and stay warm.
Pawlik said all of the responders worked like a well-oiled machine that knew they had to keep working.
"It will live with us forever," Pawlik said. "That's something that you'll never forget."
Times staff writer Elvia Malagon contributed to this report.