"One guy's face looked like it hit the windshield," said the Shirley resident, who had been on his way to work in Babylon when he ran across the LIE median to the accident scene. "There was blood. He was shaken up. We calmed him down and got him some air."
It was a chaotic scene for him and others who tried to help those injured Wednesday.
Palenzuela and others came upon another car, so crumpled that they couldn't make out whether the driver was a man or woman.
"You'll be all right, just hang on," Palenzuela shouted. "We couldn't get to them. We didn't have the equipment. We just tried to let them know we wouldn't leave them."
Danny Gershonowitz saw the fire from his rearview mirror and ran to help. He and several others helped dazed truck driver Raymond Simoneau escape the cab of his tractor trailer before it burst into flames.
Jay Aaronson of Patchogue said he was heading toward Riverhead to eat with friends when he saw flames reach up into the sky.
Caught in the traffic, he did not get near enough to see any injured people up close, but he heard them. He said the sounds gave him chills.
"You could hear some crying, moaning, but the visibility was very poor because of the smoke," Aaronson said. "There were just cars everywhere. There was nowhere for these people to go. Just chaos."
Joseph Williams, commissioner of Suffolk County's Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services, was taken aback by the "devastation" he saw, even after 46 years of responding to emergencies.
Williams said one truck driver hooked a line to the rear of a wrecked car and towed it backward, away from nearby vehicles on fire. "He couldn't get the person out of the car," the commissioner said, "so he hooked up to the rear bumper and towed the car back away . . . to prevent that car from getting on fire with somebody in it."
When Ridge Fire Chief John Mirando arrived, some cars looked like "accordions" and others had been burned to less than half their original size.
The chief, a 25-year volunteer firefighter, said it was the worst wreckage site he had encountered: "It looked like something blew up on the expressway."