Ice storm brings I-84 to a standstill

Wednesday, January 30, 2013
A series of chain-reaction accidents snarled cars and trucks in the Glenns Ferry area during last week's winter storm. Photo courtesy Elmore County Sheriff's Department

A winter storm that blew across southern Idaho on Thursday was responsible for triggering a multi-vehicle crash on the interstate along with nearly two dozen other accidents.

Freezing rain from the storm froze onto the highway and other roadways, creating black ice conditions that prompted the Idaho Transportation Department to close an 83-mile stretch of the interstate for nearly 10 hours.

"I have never seen conditions as slick as they were," said Capt. Steve Richardson, a spokesman with the Idaho State Police. It was 100 continuous miles of frozen highway covered with a quarter inch of frozen rain.

The storm prompted schools in Mountain Home and Glenns Ferry to close with officials at Mountain Home Air Force Base limiting operations to mission-essential duties.

The Elmore County Dispatch office received the first reports of weather-related accidents around 1:55 a.m. Calls regarding vehicles sliding off the interstate followed about 20 minutes later.

Over the next 16 hours, the country dispatch center received reports of 22 separate crashes along with 11 separate cases of vehicles sliding off the interstate and other roadways. A majority of the crashes happened between mileposts 115 and 120 near the China Wall area west of Glenns Ferry with injuries reported in many of those collisions.

At least two more accidents were reported on Highway 20 north of Mountain Home with another happening at the intersection of State Highways 67 and 167 near Mountain Home Air Force Base.

Accidents within city limits were reportedly minor with only four collisions reported that day, according to city police chief Nick Schilz.

Among the worst crashes that day happened around 5:20 a.m. on the westbound side of the interstate near milepost 117. According to Deputy Ray Page with the Elmore County Sheriff's Department, the driver of a sport utility vehicle spun out of control on the ice and crashed into a highway barrier.

Initially stepping outside to check on the damage, she tried to climb back into her car as a semi and other vehicles approached. Unable to stop, the semi struck the front of the SUV, with the driver swept underneath the car and trapped under it. That triggered a chain-reaction crash involving 17 cars and semis.

"It was like a pinball machine with one vehicle colliding with another," Page said.

Before the interstate was closed, the storm had already reduced traffic to a crawl and down to one lane between Micron and the Elmore and Ada county line.

At 6:25 a.m., the state transportation department closed the east- and westbound sides of interstate from Boise and Glenns Ferry while issuing a travel advisory urging drivers to minimize non-essential interstate travel in the Treasure Valley area. By 8:15 a.m., the department extended the closure, which stretched from the Broadway exit at milepost 54 to the Bliss exit at milepost 137.

The weather posed significant challenges for emergency crews trying to reach the crash scenes, Page said. An extrication vehicle from the King Hill Rural Fire District sustained extensive front-end damage when it spun out of control in route to the multi-vehicle collision near milepost 117. Bob Janousek, chief of the rural fire district, said the truck was traveling about 15 miles per hours before it went into a spin and struck the rampart on the China Wall west of Glenns Ferry. No injuries were reported.

Meanwhile, an ambulance from Gooding was reportedly involved in a separate collision.

The hazardous roadways required emergency responders to adapt to the deteriorating conditions. During the crash at milepost 117, for example, rescuers had to reach a crash scene on foot with law enforcement patrolmen pulling the woman out from beneath her vehicle.

The ambulance crew transporting the critically injured woman, then struggled to reach Elmore Medical Center, according to Page. Driving up the Hammett hill area near milepost 106, the rescue crew was following a truck spreading sand on the ice-covered highway. However, the truck ended up sliding off the road, prompting the ambulance crew to drive off the road in hopes of gaining traction.

The Hammett hill area remained a significant hurdle for emergency responders throughout the morning, according to Richardson. Some state troopers struggled to drive up the hill while others heading downhill were unable to stop.

According to preliminary reports, ambulance crews had completed more than a dozen transports as they responded to the weather-related crashes. With the exception of the one critically injured driver, others sustained generally minor injuries.

As the storm continued to blanket the roadway, it brought interstate traffic to a standstill.

"Many drivers pulled over and were stranded for hours because they couldn't stay on the roads," Richardson said.

It was the worst storm that the state trooper had seen in his 29-year career. The roads were so slick that several semi trucks and trailers simply slid off the road and tipped over due to the roadway's slopped grade.

Meanwhile, one trooper stepping out of his vehicle to check on a crash watched his parked patrol cruiser slide across two traffic lanes and into a semi.

At one point, another state trooper reported seeing 20 crashed semis within visual range of his position on the interstate, Richardson said.

To deal with the emergencies, the state police called in their off-duty troopers while requesting additional support from their field office in Jerome. Meanwhile, Sheriff Rick Layher called in a majority of his law enforcement team, including many of his off-duty deputies.

In Mountain Home, city police pulled in additional resources, including members of the local Citizens on Patrol team. One patrol vehicle set up a roadblock at the Exit 95 on ramp to keep motorists off the closed roadway.

Road conditions began to improve by early afternoon as warmer temperatures started to melt the ice off the roads. At 12:15 p.m., the westbound side of the interstate from milepost 95 to Boise had reopened with the eastbound lanes. Within 90 minutes, crews had reopened the eastbound lanes.

At 4:15 p.m., the remaining areas of the interstate had reopened with lane restrictions still in place between mileposts 115 to 120 as crews worked to remove the remaining crashed semis and vehicles. Some wrecked vehicles were still being removed early Friday. Richardson estimated that the accidents on the interstate that day had wrecked nearly 70 vehicles.

Looking back, Page admits he's dealt with some severe weather over the years but nothing to the extend of last week's storm.

"I had never seen a storm that covered so much area. "It was horrible," the deputy said.

County Sheriff Rick Layher remembers only one other time in his law enforcement career when roads were this bad.

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