Fire chief recalls horrific scene at I-94 pileup
BY AMY LAVALLEY Post-Tribune correspondent January 24, 2014 11:10AM
Updated: February 26, 2014 6:11AM
MICHIGAN CITY — The volunteer fire chief who was first to arrive at a deadly pileup on Interstate 94 said the scene, which involved about 46 vehicles, was devastating.
“It was something I’ve never seen and never want to see again,” Mick Pawlik, chief of the Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department, said during a Friday news conference at Michigan City’s city hall.
Three people were killed, two people were critically injured, and another 20 people suffered injuries in the pileup, which occurred on a snow-slicked slice of eastbound I-94 and began at 2:21 p.m.
Dozens of police and first responders descended on the scene, including state troopers from Michigan.
“It was a miracle out there,” Pawlik said, adding rescuers were lucky 20 people weren’t killed instead, given the magnitude of the crash they discovered when they arrived.
Indiana State Police brought in chaplains and clergy to help rescuers deal with what they saw.
“This will live with us forever,” Pawlik said.
He found talking to those he assisted helped him and them get through the situation.
“I try to make it a personal thing. You talk to the people,” he said, adding those being rescued “look at you like you’re Moses parting the water.”
He told a woman named Judy he would make it a priority to get her out of her car, and provided items to keep her warm in the meantime.
Rescuers, who were on the scene for four hours, spent three hours extricating Jeffrey Rennell, 48, of Ada, Mich. He was flown by U-CAN helicopter to Christ Advocate Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill.
Those killed were husband and wife Thomas Wolma, 67, and Marilyn Wolma, 65, of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Jerry Dalrymple, 65, of Chicago.
Also critically injured were Henry Imboden, 79, of Merrillville, who was taken to Franciscan St. Anthony Health in Michigan City.
Another 20 people injured in the pileup were transported to IU Health in LaPorte and Franciscan St. Anthony in Michigan City. Porter Regional Hospital in Valparaiso received three of the patients; a spokeswoman said two were treated and released and a third was expected to be released Friday.
Rennell’s vehicle was encased in semis, Pawlik said. He was conscious during his rescue.
“I told him after 5 o’clock, I’m going to take you out for a beer,” Pawlik said.
Lt. Jerry Williams, district commander for Indiana State Police, said police established an incident command center with the help of Michigan City officials, as well as providing buses to serve as warming centers for both rescuers and the rescued in the extreme cold.
“It’s a very methodical process, as you can imagine with a crash scene like that,” he said, adding it was a challenge getting to the injured, five or six of whom were trapped in some way.
Rennell was trapped in “a pocket of vehicles,” and several vehicles had to be pulled away before rescuers could reach him, Williams said.
“There were people in cars that you couldn’t see,” added Sgt. Ann Wojas, public information officer for the state police.
The Indiana Department of Transportation will assess any structural damage that may have occurred on I-94 because of the crash, officials said, adding a hazardous material team was deployed to handle fuel or other leaks on the roadway.
Michigan City Mayor Ron Meer said his concerns when he found out about the pile-up were making sure his city’s police and fire departments were ready to assist on the scene, and helping displaced people who weren’t injured.
Many were transported to area hotels or the train station, he said.
Like other officials at the news conference, Meer said his thoughts were with the families of those killed and injured at the scene.
“It could have been a lot worse, because it was horrific out there,” he said.