Storm brings turnpike traffic to standstill for nearly full day
January 23, 2016 7:32 PM
The Duquesne Athletic department posted on Twitter this photo of the Duquesne University basketball team's bus stuck on the PA Turnpike Saturday. Somerset County emergency crews brought them food.
Dale Templin of Shadyside and her husband Robert use a broom to clear snow outside their house on Saturday.
Ross Twp. fire and police begin the process of opening up the intersection of Babcock Blvd and Siebert Road in Ross Township after a water main break closed the road for two hours in the morning on Saturday.
State officials placed speed and vehicle restrictions on major highways around the area due to dangerous conditions. The Pennsylvania Turnpike has been closed westbound between Somerset and Bedford.
Snow on Braddock Ave in Pittsburgh Saturday morning.
Bob Jones, Jason Martin, and Robert Smith from Homewood walk along Homewood Avenue in Pt. Breeze looking for some shoveling work Saturday.
Snow falls on the Allegheny River.
A pedestrian walks on a snow covered sidewalk on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill on Saturday, January 23, 2016.
Heather Mallak from Lawrenceville carries her son, Zeev, 6, the final way home after a morning of walking along the Riverfront Trail in Lawrenceville Saturday.
By Bill Schackner and Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The northern fringes of a mammoth winter storm left southwestern Pennsylvanians Saturday with vastly differing landscapes of snow piled 3 to 30 inches deep, but most residents shared a common reason for relief: At least they got home.
An untold number of others were not so lucky, caught overnight Friday and Saturday inside one of the estimated 500 westbound cars, trucks and buses that became mired on the snowbound Pennsylvania Turnpike near Somerset, as jackknifed tractor-trailers unable to scale a hill approaching the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel helped create a blockage with snow piling up nearly 2 feet or higher in spots.
Some motorists Saturday evening faced the prospect of a second night in their vehicles, despite daylong efforts to get them turned around and off the highway.
Firefighters, medical service workers and other emergency crews backed by National Guardsmen went vehicle to vehicle to check on the well-being of those inside and deliver food and gasoline as necessary, said Carl DeFebo, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
Several of those stranded were transported from the turnpike for treatment of ailments such as diabetes. By late Saturday night, a number of vehicles were moving again.
“We have every available service personnel involved,” Mr. DeFebo said. “ A situation like this is an hourslong event to clear up.”
Among those waiting in idling buses were hundreds of Catholic children and their adult chaperones returning from Friday’s March for Life in Washington, D.C. Some 300 to 400 were from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, including the school’s president, stuck on one of the group’s eight buses. Hundreds more Catholic high school students waited in buses that had traveled to the D.C. march from Nebraska, Minnesota and elsewhere.
A bus carrying the Duquesne University men’s basketball team finally began moving Saturday night after being trapped for 22 hours on the Turnpike on its way home from a game Friday afternoon in Fairfax, Va. The team finally made it home late Saturday night. Also freed were members of the Temple University women’s gymnastic team who were supposed to arrive by bus at the University of Pittsburgh for a meet earlier Saturday.
For a time Friday night, those stuck also included a member of Congress, Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, who was with his wife and two of his children and managed to get their four-wheel-drive Suburban around foundering trucks and get through the Allegheny Tunnel.
Having participated in the D.C. event, the family left for home ahead of the blizzard but nevertheless endured a harrowing 13-hour drive. They got stuck first about 3 miles west of Breezewood and later for about two hours at the foot of a hill leading to the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel. “You’d go for a couple inches, sit for half an hour and then go another couple inches and sit for half an hour,” he said. “The snow was piling up.”
Joe Arkfeld, 18, a senior at Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha, Neb., shared his observations about the delay in a phone interview as he and others on their bus watched a movie, “The Martian,” to help pass the time.
They were among 350 students and 35 chaperones from the Omaha Archdiocese that were on six buses that became stuck between Bedford and Somerset. Their trip home essentially froze from 7 p.m. Friday as everything in front of their bus came to a halt.
“It’s still snowing, not as hard as earlier, but it’s still snowing,” Mr. Arkfeld said mid-afternoon Saturday. “We’ve done some running around outside. There were no snowball fights, but one of my friends made a snow angel.”
He said the best part of the delay was when he and other students talked to a priest on board about how they would approach various life situations. The worst?
“When we woke up and asked how far we had moved overnight. We were told about 50 feet.”
Late Saturday afternoon, Franciscan University spokesman Tom Sofio confirmed that school president Father Sean Sheridan was among those from his school stuck on the Turnpike.
Officials Saturday shut the turnpike between Breezewood and New Stanton to better facilitate removal of the vehicles, Mr. DeFebo said.
He said workers were starting at each end of the backup and working toward the middle to get passenger vehicles off of the highway first. Some vehicles are being turned around to head the opposite way down the west lanes, and others are being allowed to cross over to the east lanes. The east-bound tunnel is being closed periodically to allow stranded vehicles to leave the area.
“If you have dozens and dozens of tractor-trailers involved, it’s going to be several hours,” he said.
Gov. Tom Wolf offered the estimate of 500 vehicles trapped during a 2:15 p.m. briefing. He said emergency personnel were concentrating on getting people out safely first, then vehicles.
“Our primary focus is the safety of those human beings,” Mr. Wolf said. “We are sending buses in as quickly as we can.”
Heavy wreckers are being moved into the area to help with the tractor-trailers, Mr. DeFebo said, but that can be a time-consuming process since it often involves unlocking the brakes on the trucks before they can be moved.
“The terrain in this particular area makes it a particular challenge to get the wreckers there,” he said. “It is a frustrating situation.”
Mr. Wolf urged residents across the state to stay off the roads so crews can take care of them. “We need everybody in Pennsylvania to exercise self restraint,” he said. “Stay off of the highways. Stay home.”
Due to the snowstorm, the NHL postponed today’s Penguins game in Washington, D.C. Chris Young’s concert scheduled for Saturday night at Stage AE also was postponed.
Forecasters said bands of snow reached slightly more north than expected, prompting upgrades from weather advisories to warnings around Pittsburgh. But snow amounts varied sharply, from 3 inches in the Cranberry area to 30 inches in Mill Run, Fayette County, said meteorologist Pat Herald with the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh.
He said today would be variably cloudy with highs in the upper 20s. Temperatures were to climb to about 40 on Monday and somewhat higher Tuesday. “We’ll get a break over the next couple days,” Mr. Herald said.
At Pittsburgh International Airport, a total of 4.9 inches of snow was recorded. More fell to the south and east of Allegheny County and less to the north.
The airport remained open throughout the storm, with a limited number of flight cancellations, mainly to areas such as Philadelphia and Washington, a spokesman said.
Guy Costa, chief operations officer for the City of Pittsburgh, said plowing and treating of primary roads was completed by Saturday evening, with work on secondary and other roads to continue through Monday morning. He said 70 trucks and tractors were working the 1,200 miles of city roads.
Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette, 412-263-1977 or on Twitter @BschacknerPG. Ed Blazina: email@example.com or 412-263-1470.
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