Road had been salted, plowed about 20 minutes before I-94 crash
BY AMY LAVALLEY Post-Tribune correspondent January 24, 2014 11:32AM
Indiana State Police Lt. Jerry Williams, State Police Sgt. Ann Wojas and Michigan City Mayor Ron Meer give a news conference Friday morning at city hall about the 46-vehicle pileup on I-94 in which three people died. | Post-Tribune
Updated: February 26, 2014 6:11AM
MICHIGAN CITY — Police and transportation officials said Friday weather conditions on the stretch of Interstate 94 where a 46-vehicle pileup occurred in which three people died and 22 people were injured were bad but did not merit closing the highway.
“Our crews had been out there salting and plowing,” said Matt Deitchley, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation’s LaPorte district, adding the road was slick, but whiteout conditions weren’t severe enough to close the interstate. “We had a full callout of crews the entire day.”
Officials said drivers faced heavy snow, strong winds and bitter temperatures, all of which contributed to the road conditions.
Crews worked all night to clear the wrecked vehicles from the road, which reopened about 10:30 a.m. Friday.
The agency had received numerous calls Thursday about crashes and slide-offs before the first call about the pileup came in, said Indiana State Police Sgt. Ann Wojas, that agency’s public information officer. The incident occurred between mile markers 35.5 and 36.5 in the eastbound lane of the highway.
“We’re not here to establish the cause of the crash,” Wojas said. That could take weeks, if not months, given the number of deaths, injuries and vehicles involved.
Communication between the state police and INDOT was much the same as when officials closed I-94 and I-65 because of the Jan. 5 blizzard, said Lt. Jerry Williams, district commander for the state police. That line of communication stretches all the way to Gov. Mike Pence.
During that storm, snow fell at such a rate that crews couldn’t keep up, but Thursday’s conditions were different, Williams said.
“It was a squall, very similar to one earlier in the week,” he said, adding it was hard for experts to determine the storm’s direction or intensity.
“There was no question from all of our departments as we monitored the band here that it was not quite as significant as we experienced earlier in the week,” he said, adding that INDOT and police crews were already out and ready.
In fact, INDOT had cleared the eastbound lane of I-94 just 20 minutes before the pileup occurred.
“The rate the snow was coming in helped create that environment,” Williams said, adding drivers traveling at normal speeds suddenly hit a band of heavy snow. “Unfortunately, if vehicles don’t react right or you don’t react right, you have the conditions we had here.”
Police and highway officials look at how easily they can access a highway to keep it clear in determining whether to close it during a storm, Williams said, with the goal of keeping the highways safe.
Drivers who hit Thursday’s sudden whiteout “couldn’t see each other as they came into this pass of road.”
National Weather Service meteorologist Evan Bentley said a band of lake-effect snow moved in late in the afternoon, dropping 1 to 2 inches of snow an hour and reducing visibility to a quarter-mile or less, with some reports of visibility near zero.