27 January 2014

Ada man pinned in SUV for 3 hours in massive I-94 crash: 'Very fortunate to be here'

Story first appeared on MLive.com.

ADA, MI – An Ada man who was trapped in his mangled SUV for three hours during Thursday's 46-car pileup on I-94 in Indiana said he feels fortunate to have walked away with only minor injuries.

Jeff Rennell, 48, was driving home from a work trip in Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 23, when he became trapped in the mile-long wreckage that killed a Grand Rapids couple and a Chicago man.

Weather conditions in Chicago were sunny and calm, Rennell said, but he ran into snow as he reached Michigan City, Ind., around 2:30 p.m.

He was traveling in the middle lane of eastbound I-94 when snow blew across the highway. As the snow cleared, he saw a semi jackknifed across three lanes about 200 yards ahead. He figured he had time to stop.

"When I put on my brake, the ice was so slick I accelerated, and that was the problem," Rennell said Friday from his Ada home. "It was whiteout conditions with the ice and that was so treacherous. I hit the semi in front of me and then other cars hit me."

The front of Rennell's Ford Explorer became wedged underneath the semi truck. The passenger seat was pushed up against his right side, and his body was stuck in a small space between the window and passenger seat.

Coolspring Township Fire Chief Mick Pawlik said vehicles were smashed together and some were on top of others when rescuers reached the crash scene. Rennell's Ford Explorer was so crushed that crews couldn't determine the vehicle's make.

Rennell's feet were trapped in the front of the vehicle under the semi. He wasn't sure if his feet were injured, but he was able to stay calm because he figured he was in decent shape regardless.

Rennell was among more than 20 people injured. He made it out with a sprained ankle, a cracked fibula that requires a leg brace and contusions. He also suffered from hypothermia in the freezing conditions.

He noted that the first responders were cold, too, but they worked tirelessly.

"The heroes are the firemen and the paramedics," Rennell said.

Rescuers repeatedly dug at and cut his SUV, and at one point attempted to remove the semi with a tow truck. One paramedic stayed with him and called his wife during the long, "delicate" process it took crews to free him.

Rennell plans to meet and thank the paramedic.

"He was miraculous. He was just my little friend during that incident," he said. "He was like 'Jeff, I'm going to be here with you. I'm going to get you out.'"

Relaxing at home on Friday with his wife and two children, ages 4 and 6, Rennell said he's blessed. The crash won't alter his outlook on life as he said he has always prioritized family first.

"I do appreciate the fact that I'm very, very fortunate to be here," he said. "I'm back home now and with my family, and I know that there's other people that aren’t as lucky."

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