BLOG: Turnpike Response Kept People Safe Despite Historically Dire Conditions

By: Mark Smith, Special Assistant to the Governor

January 24, 2016

A historic snowstorm unfolded from Friday through Saturday evening across much of the southern half of the commonwealth. Snowfall ended Saturday evening after leaving behind a swath of 2-3 feet of snow along the Pennsylvania turnpike corridor. The Patriot News called the snowfall “jaw dropping” and the Inquirer said it was “one for the record books.”

Along I-76 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, there was a backlog of vehicles in an area that was among the hardest hit in the state with more than 35 inches of snow falling over the course of the storm. Two large trucks jackknifed trying to climb through the mountains near Somerset, causing more trucks and other vehicles to get stuck behind them as the snow fell at a historic rate.

Despite the historic and daunting conditions of the storm, there were no fatalities or major injuries as a result of the backlog due to the response of local and state responders who worked tirelessly to check on vehicles and keep drivers safe. Considering the low temperatures, heavy snowfall and number of vehicles trapped, this is a true accomplishment for those first responders, many of whom were from fire departments and other local agencies.

The backlog began when westbound tractor trailers became unable to climb steep inclines through the mountains toward the Allegheny tunnels, jack-knifed and traffic backed up behind them along one of the more narrow sections of the Turnpike. As progress was made to clear the initial stranded trucks, other trucks also became unable to go up the hill, trapping cars, buses and other trucks still on the roadway despite the winter storm.

State and local response agencies worked tirelessly and quickly to put a plan in place to keep stranded drivers safe. The task of getting traffic moving again was no small feat. But without the tireless efforts of those on the scene, many drivers could have been in a much dire situation.

Plan X was instituted by Pennsylvania State Police and the Turnpike overnight to start turning people around, and having cars exit turnpike in opposite direction. Plan X is the method by which the Turnpike Commission certain a section of the Turnpike and reroutes traffic around the affected sections. In order to turn vehicles around, the roadway needed to be cleared by hand and using vehicles smaller than large plows. At this time, the snow was falling at a significant rate.

When the backlog was reported, PEMA contacted Somerset/Bedford emergency management to add extra resources for driver checks by first responders on ATVs and foot. There were five fire departments, including Shanksville, Berlin, Shawnee Valley, New Baltimore, and Somerset, and Pennsylvania State Police personnel performing driver checks. Every car was checked multiple times.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission refueled cars that were low on fuel so they could keep heat running in their cars. The National Guard was deployed with shovels, food, water and chains to assist with driver checks and stuck cars. There was a warming shelter set up at the Bedford exit, with additional EMS on standby there. a number of freed passengers – with the assistance of the National Guard – began to move to the Bedford shelters at the local high school that was established by PEMA. Although shelters were identified at both the middle school and high school only one shelter needed to be established at Bedford High School. Bedford High School had a midnight shelter count of 216 residents. 1,200 meals were delivered by the National Guard consisting of box lunches made by the Salvation Army.

On Friday night and early Saturday morning, there were more than 135 first responders from state, county, and local governments on the scene. By Saturday, the number of first responders grew to 250 including 87 guard troops supported by 28 humvees, 8 cargo trucks, and 2 large wreckers.

The queue between mile-markers 126-128 westbound steadily decreased overnight and, at last report, all vehicles were cleared. Salt/plow trucks are in the area and are clearing and treating the roadway.

Some individuals, mostly commercial truck drivers, elected to remain with their vehicles. Well-being checks of motorists who chose to remain with their vehicles were performed overnight. Meals were also offered to those who stayed with their vehicles.

This was an incredible effort of fellow Pennsylvanians helping their fellow residents, and people from as far away as the Midwest. We owe our first responders, especially from local agencies, a huge debt of gratitude for their efforts to keep people safe despite a historic force of Mother Nature working against them.


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