Waterville firefighter and EMT Allen Nygren had just come off a 24-hour shift and was driving home Wednesday morning when he came upon the worst crash scene he had ever encountered.

One of the first medical professionals to arrive at the massive pileup on Interstate 95 between Etna and Carmel, he quickly began performing triage, stepping from the roof of one slippery, snow-covered vehicle to the next, clearing snow from windshields to look for victims and determine who needed medical attention first.

As he helped the injured, he came upon a man in a car that was crushed under the front of a school bus.

“He said, ‘I’m fine, but I can’t get out,’ ” Nygren said. “I said, ‘OK, we’ll get to you as soon as we can.’ ”

Nygren couldn’t believe that the driver of the car was alive.

“I kept telling him, ‘Boy, am I glad to see you.’ I was so glad he was OK.”

As Nygren checked cars and trucks for victims, he didn’t know what he would find inside the next car. “I went from one vehicle to the next to the next, brushing snow off, hoping I wouldn’t see anything that was horrible,” he said.

There were no fatalities in Wednesday’s chain-reaction crash, which state police said is one of the worst in the state’s history. Seventeen people were injured, but most of them weren’t seriously hurt.

“God’s hand was on everybody,” Nygren said.

Nygren, 47, relied on his experience and training, using the skills he acquired as a longtime firefighter, emergency medical technician and safety instructor.

“I had no medical gear,” he said. “I had on a job shirt, which is a light sweater. I had no gloves. You’d think I’d be prepared, but I’m not prepared.”

The vehicles were so close together there was no room to walk between them.

“I had to watch out and make sure to look for gasoline leaks, fires, and try to find out if there were immediate, life-threatening situations,” he said. “I came to a multiple trauma victim. I think she was pregnant. She was really hurting. She was saying she was having an anxiety attack, and understandably so.

“People saw I was out there, and several started to gather. They went over and started to comfort her. Her van was heavily damaged. She was stable, breathing. I immediately determined she was the first transport. That was No. 1 priority.”

TRIAGE AND A CALL FOR AMBULANCES

Nygren checked more vehicles.

“I got to one vehicle where a woman appeared compromised but not severe,” he said. “When I got to her she said, ‘I have chest pain.’ ”

The woman told Nygren she had a history of cardiac issues and had taken some baby aspirin.

“That told me this was a heart attack,” he said. “She now became patient No. 1 and the stable trauma became No. 2. I called 911. I had no radio. I tried to inform them I had 20 people injured, 40 vehicles, and I requested seven ambulances. I don’t know how many showed up. At any rate, after I got done going to the vehicles, I had to go back and do the circle again and check on the same people. That’s what I continued doing, was going back from patient to patient to patient.”

By then, uninjured accident victims had started leaving their vehicles to help others who had been hurt, he said.

“People were giving me first aid kits. A person in a white pickup truck saw I didn’t have any gloves and he gave me some gloves. That helped me so much. I’ve still got them. Someone 20 cars back made their way to the woman who was pregnant and covered her with a blanket.”

ONE CRASH SWIFTLY ‘TURNED INTO 20’

Nygren’s Wednesday morning had started normally. He left the Waterville Fire Department around 7 a.m., entered I-95 at Exit 130 and headed north in his four-wheel-drive pickup truck toward his home in Hampden.

Snow was still blowing from a sudden squall, and the visibility was poor.

As he drove from Etna to Carmel, he saw brake lights that stayed on longer than usual at the top of a hill in the distance.

“As I approached the crest of the hill, I saw an accident in front of me and blue lights,” he said. “It looked like an accident in the passing lane and the driving lane was OK. It probably happened 30 seconds to a minute ahead of me.”

Nygren pulled over into the lane the accident was in, then saw not just one car, but two.

“Then it turned into 20,” he said. “At this point I realized this is big. This is a big accident.”

Nygren parked his truck off the road as far as he could and ran to where the accident began and found a state trooper.

“I said, ‘I’ll start triage.’ He knew me because he’d been in my class,” Nygren said. “He recognized me, but I didn’t recognize him.”

MORE EMERGENCY CREWS ARRIVE

A firefighter since 1989, Nygren has worked for Waterville Fire for six years. He also owns a business, Training Technologies, that teaches safety classes about firefighting, how to handle chemical spills and how to rescue people.

At the crash Wednesday, many people were trapped in their vehicles, but didn’t need immediate medical attention.

The school bus in the accident, from Regional School Unit 19 of Newport, was carrying two special-needs students, an aide and the driver.

There was a first aid kit in the bus, and Nygren gave it to one of the students.

“It helped that little boy not feel scared, just because he had a Band-Aid,” Nygren said. “People were comforting each other and helping people out of their vehicles and giving them blankets and first aid kits and said, ‘Come and sit in my car where it’s warm.’ ”

As victims began to be treated by the first ambulances to arrive, many more emergency units were arriving, he said. Fire officials from Etna, Carmel, Plymouth, Hampden and Newport brought Jaws of Life extrication equipment, and all were being used.

“Emergency responders were well-organized,” Nygren said.

A SAFETY SUGGESTION FOR DRIVERS

At one point early on, Nygren called his wife on his cellphone to tell her it would be hours before he arrived home.

“My estimate was pretty accurate. It turned out to be about 5½ hours,” he said.

The accident has convinced Nygren that drivers should increase their “following distance” behind other vehicles when conditions are poor.

“Decreased speed would have prevented many of the chain-reaction accidents,” he said. “My understanding is that one single vehicle was off the road in the passing lane at northbound 171. Someone stopped to help and then as soon as people crested the hill and the vehicle came into view, drivers hit their brakes and lost control and that’s why everything happened.”

Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Thursday that authorities also heard that version of events but are still investigating. “We … have not confirmed that,” McCausland said.

TWO KIDS SCARED FOR THEIR FATHER

Nygren has responded to many accidents, but not such a massive one in which so many people needed so many resources at the same time.

He wasn’t frightened, but he was scared for the people when he went to wipe the snow from their cars to look inside.

In one, a man was complaining of chest pain. His two daughters, who were about 10 and 11, were afraid for him, Nygren recalled.

“I don’t like it when I see children scared for a parent,” he said. “I put the children in the yellow school bus when Dad was being removed from the SUV. They wanted to continually know where he was. ‘Where’s my Dad? Where’s my Dad?’ Mom was at the hospital waiting for his arrival.”

GENEROSITY OF VICTIMS, VOLUNTEERS

It was good to see the compassion that people at the scene had for each other, he said.

“People reached out. They gave shelter in their own vehicles. First aid kits were flying at me. Blankets. People coming out to comfort, reassure. Many of the responders that showed up, they’re not paid – they’re volunteers. To me, it was nice. The bus driver offered her bus for shelter.”

Nygren thinks about all the victims and wonders how they are – just as he wonders about many of the victims he has helped over the years.

By the time he left the scene after noon, he was hungry and physically and mentally drained.

“I wanted to go home and get some breakfast,” he said.