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DETROIT (DETROIT FREE PRESS) -The clear weather quickly turned treacherous. Flurries blew in and a heavy squall with snow as thick as fog suddenly covered the interstate.

Drivers slowed.

Sharon Bandemer watched in her rearview mirror as a car swayed behind her. Within moments, her Chevrolet Malibu was struck by another vehicle.

"All of a sudden," she said, "it was like a chain reaction ? boom, boom, boom, boom! All of these cars were being hit."

It was Thursday morning and several serious crashes, some fatal, on southbound I-75 in Detroit had begun. In the end, three people died, including two children, and many were injured. The destruction spread for roughly a mile and was immense, with shattered vehicles littering the roadway, as victims, some bleeding, limped to safety.

The culprit: blinding snow.

In the midst of the whiteout, Bandemer, headed south on the interstate to visit her pregnant daughter and grandson in Woodhaven, was hit and spun until her car pointed north and she was staring down three barreling tractor-trailer trucks.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die,'." the 68-year-old said.

Gripping the steering wheel hard, she thought about her family.

That morning, Bandemer had made the meat-and-rice stuffed green bell peppers her daughter loves so much, packed them into a container and left her St. Clair Shores home at 9 a.m. ready to spend time with her grandson.

But soon she was being rattled in her car and facing death. As she braced herself, Bandemer's Malibu was suddenly surrounded by semis ? and she was safe.

"It happened so damn fast," she said.

The accidents, however, took lives.

Michigan State Police Lt. Michael Shaw said two step-siblings from Windsor, ages 9 and 7, were killed in a seven-car crash. Their parents and 10-year-old sister were all in critical condition at area hospitals, Shaw said. South of that accident, a 54-year-old Allen Park man died in another crash.

A dozen victims were taken to area hospitals with broken bones, head trauma and cuts, Detroit EMS Chief Jerald James said. Dozens of other victims were treated at the scene.

Of the seven people sent to Detroit Receiving Hospital, two had been discharged and the rest were in either critical or serious condition, Alton Gunn, hospital spokesman, said Thursday night. Three victims treated at Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn were released Thursday evening.

Michigan State Police Lt. Michael Shaw said eight to 10 accidents along the stretch of interstate near the Springwells exit ensnared anywhere from 150 to 200 vehicles, between those struck and those blocked by crashes.

The accidents, which happened about 9:30 a.m., are being investigated.

Drivers say the visibility was so poor, motorists couldn't tell whether traffic was stopped or backed up. According to the National Weather Service, a heavy snow squall moved through the area. Meteorologist Debra Elliott of the weather service's White Lake Township office, said for an event to be classified as heavy snow, the visibility would have to be a half a mile or less.

Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Rob Morosi said that, though road crews had pre-salted the lanes on I-75, the snowfall quickly turned to ice.

Veteran semi driver Phillip Bost was hauling auto parts to Flat Rock on Thursday morning when the whiteout took hold and cars and trucks collided.

Detroiter Louis Younan narrowly missed colliding with a semi.

"I hit my brakes," he said. "I stayed on 'em, and I prayed."

Bost couldn't avoid the pileups. He felt several bangs and booms behind him as vehicles crashed into one other.

"It just kept going and kept going," the 55-year-old Ypsilanti resident said.

When the crashes stopped, Bost helped a man trapped in a vehicle and saw others injured and limping. Some, he said, remained trapped and needed to be freed by fire crews.

"It was just a mess," Bost said. "A horrible mess."

At least a dozen fire and emergency vehicles responded to the scene, as well as tow trucks, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, which provided food and blankets to first responders and victims.

Moe Faddoul, owner of Moe's Transport Trucking, said one of his drivers was involved in a crash, but was not injured. The driver, Faddoul said, was hauling auto parts to Kansas City.

He said the weather Thursday seemed to go from good to bad and back to good.

"These are the days that creep up on you and bad things like this happen and it's unfortunate," Faddoul said. "This is unpredictable what happened today..... These are the days that we hate."

Bandemer, who was traveling Downriver to see her daughter, was placed in an ambulance. As she waited to be taken to the hospital, Bandemer offered emergency officials some food ? the stuffed bell peppers.

She was treated at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak and released.

Bandemer's head still hurt Thursday night and so did her thumb, possibly, she said, from holding the steering wheel so tightly.

"God," she said, "must have been with me."

Contact Gina Damron: 313-223-4526 or gdamron@freepress.com. Staff Writers Christina Hall, Matt Helms and Eric D. Lawrence contributed to this report.