Pawlik said the scene was “something that you’ll never forget. It’ll live with us forever.” But he acknowledged that first responders were expecting worse.
“We’re lucky that there wasn’t 20 people dead and three people injured,” he said.
Among the survivors was Jeffrey Rennell, who was driving home to Michigan from a business meeting in Chicago when his SUV suddenly started bouncing off other vehicles like a ping pong ball. Firefighters found it on top of another vehicle and “encased in semis,” Pawlik said.
Rennell was trapped for more than three hours in the twisted remains of his Ford Explorer, according to his brother, Steve Rennell. He said his 48-year-old brother told him he wasn’t able to move much while trapped in his SUV, but he didn’t think his injury was serious.
“There were other people around that he knew weren’t all right,” Steve Rennell said.
Pawlik said Rennell’s extrication was the worst of the five or six that crews did Thursday night.
He kept talking to Rennell throughout the process, even making the Michigan man laugh when he told him: “Jeff, it’s after 5 o’clock, and when we get you out I’m going to take you out for a beer.”
Instead, Rennell was airlifted to a Chicago hospital, where he was treated for a broken leg and released. He was headed back to Michigan on Friday to be reunited with his wife and two children, ages 5 and 3.
“It was a miracle out there,” Pawlik said. “I never want to see it again.”
Indiana State Police Sgt. Ann Wojas said the investigation into the crash could take months.
But officials defended the actions of highway crews and praised the efforts of first responders, who spent hours tending to the injured along a frigid mile-long stretch of road.
Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Deitchley said crews had been out salting and plowing the area about 20 minutes before the crash. The roads were slick, but conditions didn’t warrant closing the road, he said.