DETROIT – It took only seconds for the light snow to turn into a blinding curtain of white. Drivers slammed on their brakes, others swerved to avoid tractor-trailers jackknifed across a busy Detroit freeway that quickly turned into a mile-long string of wrecks.
Three people were killed, including two children. The maze of mangled vehicles closed Interstate 75 for several hours after the Thursday morning chain-reaction wrecks, which also sent more than a dozen people to local hospitals.
Ken Czarnecki recalled quickly swerving to avoid a stopped truck in his lane, then glancing off the side of a car wedged beneath another truck before striking the back of a semi-trailer. The falling snow, he said, took only moments to thicken.
"It was a total white sheet," Czarnecki said. "You couldn't see past the front of your car."
The children who died, a 7-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl from Windsor, Ontario, were believed to be siblings whose parents were injured in the accident, Michigan State Police Lt. Michael Shaw. An adult also was killed, though no other information about the victims has been released.
Police estimated that as many as 30 cars, SUVs and semi-trailers were crushed, buckled or damaged along the freeway, which cuts through a heavily industrialized part of the city and nearby communities. Semi-trailers and tankers dominate the interstate, some hauling loads and liquids to a nearby refinery and steel companies.
The freeway's surface was slick Thursday as temperatures in the Detroit area dropped by about 30 degrees from the previous day — to only 24 degrees at the time of the pile up, along with strong winds. The accidents happened near an elevated stretch of expressway where the road surface can cool quickly and make driving hazardous, said National Weather Service meteorologist Bryan Tilley.
Conditions for drivers went from "clear to total whiteout in a matter of seconds," Shaw said. "All of a sudden, they couldn't see anymore."
Motorists and passengers who were able to climb out of their vehicles huddled together on the side of the road, some visibly distraught, others looking dazed. A man and woman hugged under the gray, cloud-filled skies, a pair of suitcases next to them and a bumper on the ground behind.
"It happened so fast. I've never seen anything like it," said Czarnecki, a 47-year-old who was headed to Toledo, Ohio, to train kitchen and bath salespeople on a new computer system. "I actually controlled my speed pretty well. I don't think anyone was really speeding. People weren't zipping by me."
Marc Milam said his all-wheel drive car allowed him to maneuver among "all the cars that were crashing" around him.
"It happened really fast, and it was over with," said Milam, who was headed to work for an auto supplier when the pileup started.
Authorities quickly called in as many ambulances that were available to transport victims to area hospitals. Rescue crews went vehicle to vehicle in the search for survivors and to provide aid.
At least 13 people were transported to hospitals, while others were treated at the scene, Shaw said.
It took more than six hours before the freeway's southbound lanes were reopened. Shaw said it could be a day or more before investigators identify which vehicles were involved in the initial wreck that spawned the other crashes.
The bad weather also was blamed for at least two other pileups Thursday in the state. U.S. 23 in Mundy Township near Flint was closed for hours after about 33 vehicles crashed during a sudden snow squall. In southwest Michigan, eight tractor-trailers and six cars crashed on I-94, closing the westbound lanes to traffic for hours at Paw Paw.
A similar pileup west of Indianapolis involving more than 40 vehicles that closed Interstate 70 in both directions. Authorities said five people remained hospitalized Thursday night, including on in critical condition.
Associated Press writers Mike Householder, David N. Goodman, Jeff Karoub and David Aguilar in Detroit, and Pamela Engel in Plainfield, Ind., contributed to this story.