Brutal weather closes schools, strands motorists across region -- 30 to 40 people rescued from cars between Lake Park and Hawley
FARGO - Emergency responders, sometimes with snowplow escorts, were busy Sunday rescuing stranded highway motorists in the winter’s worst blizzard.
Although highways including Interstates 29 and 94 were shut down over vast areas of North Dakota and Minnesota, many motorists failed to heed no-travel advisories and got stuck in drifts in windswept rural areas.
Sustained north winds around 40 mph blew much of Sunday afternoon, with gusts around 50 mph. The winds were expected to taper overnight as temperatures plunged far below zero, with life-threatening wind chills.
Troopers and deputies in both states were busy responding to a rash of accidents, including chain-reaction pileups resulting when drivers were blinded by whiteouts.
In Minnesota, Interstate 94 from Moorhead to Barnesville had multiple stranded cars as well as jack-knifed semi-trailers blocking travel, said Capt. Bruce Hentges of the Minnesota State Patrol.
On I-94, Hentges estimated troopers and deputies rescued at least eight to 10 stranded semis, and 30 to 40 cars from Lake Park to Hawley.
“We’re still rescuing people on I-94 from Downer to Barnesville,” he said after 5 p.m. Sunday.
An accident near the I-94 westbound exit near Downer involving two semi-trucks and one car plugged traffic for a while. No injuries were reported in that accident.
On Highway 10 in Minnesota, he estimated 30 to 40 motorists were stranded between Lake Park and Hawley, Bergquist said.
Similar traffic snarls involving stranded motorists occurred on Interstate 94 in North Dakota, which was shut down from Bismarck to Alexandria, Minn.
Late Sunday morning, before I-94 was closed, North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers responded to multiple crashes involving eight vehicles about 15 miles west of Jamestown.
A chain-reaction accident ensued in zero visibility conditions, resulting in one injury, according to Sgt. Shannon Henke.
A semi-truck rear-ended a pickup pulling a trailer, then crashed into the back of another semi, blocking eastbound Interstate 94, Henke said.
Several more crashes followed at the location involving three more semis and three other vehicles.
About 30 vehicles were blocked by the crashes, and traffic later was detoured. One person was taken by ambulance to Jamestown Regional Medical Center with injuries, Henke said in a report.
An even bigger pileup happened Sunday morning on North Dakota Highway 23 10 miles east of Makoti in Ward County.
That crash involved 14 vehicles, including two semis, an ambulance and a fire truck and resulted in four minor injuries, according to Capt. Gary Orluck of the North Dakota Highway Patrol.
Again, the chain-reaction accident involving rear-end collisions resulted from zero visibility, Orluck said in a report. The highway was closed for several hours, and the accident remains under investigation.
In many cases, rescuers had to leave stalled vehicles and drive the occupants to a safe location, Hentges and other law enforcement officers said.
“We’re just getting people off the highway,” he said. “Basically, the roads are impassable everywhere west of Detroit Lakes and Fergus Falls.”
Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said his deputies were having difficulty rescuing stranded motorists who were unable to tell where they were, because of whiteout conditions.
“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “People just need to stop driving. This is by far the worst storm we’ve had this winter.”
Rescuers were scrambling to reach people who got stuck in the storm before temperatures plunged overnight to the 20-below zero range.
Clay County deputies escorted an ambulance from Dilworth to Glyndon and back to Fargo-Moorhead, creeping along at speeds of 5 or 10 mph, Bergquist said.
“Right now it’s just terrible,” he added.
The situation was much the same in rural Cass County, where deputies also were busy responding to accidents and rescuing stranded motorists, said Cpl. Jade Van Den Einde.
“We just rescued somebody on County Road 26 near County Road 11, which is rural Gardner,” Van Den Einde said Sunday afternoon.
“They weren’t properly clothed and they had a quarter tank of gas,” he said.
Besides widespread whiteouts, drifting snow around bridges and trees created hazards for blinded motorists, he said.
“Pretty much the whole county is like that,” he said.
People either didn’t heed no-travel advisories, thinking they could deal with conditions, or were unaware of the advisories, which started airing Saturday.
“They’re not using common sense,” Van Den Einde said. “They got caught up” when conditions abruptly deteriorated, he added. “It came up quick.”
Less severe in town
Conditions were less severe in Fargo-Moorhead, but West Acres Shopping Center closed at 4 p.m., after opening at noon, because of the worsening blizzard.
“Right away, there was quite a few people,” said Kirk Schroeder, who is in charge of guest services at the mall. But as the afternoon progressed, and visibility and road conditions deteriorated, “they started coming in slower and slower.”
A pileup happened on 12th Avenue North in Fargo involving several vehicles and several minor injuries, with one victim taken to a hospital.
Despite Sunday’s howling blizzard, almost 70 hardy bicyclists took part in a winter classic race that started at Fargo Community Gardens near Oak Grove Park.
The planned 10k race was shortened to 7.5k because of the poor visibility and drifting snow. Of 68 starting cyclists, 55 finished, with the winning time 33 minutes, 33 seconds.
“The cold is not a factor if you dress right,” said Zach Johnson, 25, of Fargo, the race winner. The course, which had been plowed Saturday, had drifts up to two feet deep, some requiring racers to dismount and carry their bikes.
“I would say keeping your momentum in the drifts was the most challenging,” Johnson said.
Scores of stranded motorists took refuge at truck stops and motels in Fargo-Moorhead.
At the Stamart Travel Center and Convenience Store in north Fargo, three Canadian truckers were among those passing idle time during the blizzard.
“Because the roads are shut down, which is part of this business, it gives us time to meet interesting and not-so-interesting people,” Bob Carwell said, ribbing fellow Canadian drivers Bob Woelk and Dave Chutcuti.
Woelk’s truck broke down in Fargo on Thursday and was repaired just as the blizzard struck, making his an extended visit. As he swapped tales with his fellow drivers, he was looking forward to his upcoming retirement – sometime after he returns to British Columbia.
The National Weather Service expected the blizzard conditions to end at midnight Sunday, but severe cold weather is expected to follow.
Monday’s predicted high in Fargo is 18 below, with the temperature dropping to 26 below overnight, according to the weather service forecast. The temperature was expected to go above zero Tuesday, with a daytime high of 18 above.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522
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