Blowing Snow Leaves Drivers Stranded Poor Visibility, Icy Roads Contribute To Accidents, Fatality

At least 40 people were stranded Wednesday by snowdrifts on U.S. Highway 195 as near-blizzard conditions swept farming communities south and west of Spokane.

Among those stuck on the highway was Whitman County Sheriff Steve Thomson. He radioed dispatchers, telling them to inform state officials that the county had reached a state of emergency.

“I don’t know what the meteorologists call it, but when I’ve got snow up to my belly button, it’s a blizzard,” said Thomson. “It was snowing and blowing and visibility was zero.”

It could happen again before the end of the week. Meteorologists expect only snow flurries today but say a major storm may move into the region Friday night.

On Wednesday, drifts up to 5 feet deep closed Highway 195 for 25 miles between Pullman and the Idaho state line near Lewiston.

Similar conditions forced the Washington State Patrol to close state Highway 261 between Ritzville and Washtucna. Both highways were reopened Wednesday evening.

U.S. Highway 12 also was closed west of Clarkston for about four hours Wednesday.

Interstate 90 remained open, but driving was treacherous. Three tractor-trailer rigs overturned near the Spokane-Lincoln County line about 8 a.m.

The state patrol had investigated 133 snow-related accidents by 10 p.m. No one was injured, said Lt. Bruce Clark.

A harried Idaho State Police dispatcher reported “lots of slide-offs, lots of accidents, nothing major as far as I know. … We haven’t had time to keep track of them.”

Treacherous ice on state Highway 41 south of Rathdrum, Idaho, contributed to a fatal accident Wednesday night.

Darlene King, 39, of Rathdrum, was killed after the driver of a pickup lost control and slammed into the driver’s side of King’s station wagon, authorities said.

The storm, which dumped 3 to 5 inches of snow throughout the region, started before dawn Wednesday.

It was made worse after daylight by 15 mph winds that hit much of the region but missed most of Spokane. In Pullman, winds blew steadily at 29 mph, said Irv Haynes of the National Weather Service.

It may have been a blizzard to Sheriff Thomson and other frustrated drivers, but the storm fell just short of being an official blizzard. That designation requires winds of at least 35 mph with blowing snow and near-zero visibility, said Haynes.

Thomson, who lives just south of Pullman, said he climbed into his four-wheel-drive Bronco and started looking for stranded drivers about 7:30 a.m. when authorities closed Highway 195.

He found a cluster of 30 to 40 cars about 14 miles south of town, where a truck had slid sideways and couldn’t get straightened before drifts blocked the highway.

“After that, we just had to wait for enough machinery so that we could get them out. We had two snowplows come in from the south, and they got stuck,” said Thomson.

Thomson’s declaration of a “winter storm emergency” meant the county could get equipment and other resources from the state and neighboring counties. As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary.

By 1:30 p.m., state crews had a single lane cleared, and the stranded drivers formed caravans to Colton and Uniontown, Wash., to the north and Lewiston to the south.

Colton Elementary School was turned into an aid station for stranded travelers. But only two - plus a few police and road workers - showed up.

“My principal and I scraped up some lunch meat and cheese and coffee” to feed the road-weary visitors, said Superintendent Dale Foley.

Pennsylvania trucker Debbie Rager was northbound from Lewiston before the highway was closed and just missed getting stuck with the stranded travelers. But unable to drive past Uniontown, she spent the morning at Elinor’s Restaurant.

“I spent three hours back on the Lewiston hill, shut down,” she said. “I’ve got chains on my tractor and my trailer. Still, it was pretty hairy.”

Most of his regular customers stayed home, said restaurant owner Rick Von Bargen, whose morning rush amounted to five strangers, including Rager.

“They’re here, drinking coffee with that frightened look on their faces,” he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: Changed from the Idaho edition.

Changed from the Idaho edition.

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