Details on Pa. Turnpike traffic backup show heroic efforts by volunteers
Tom Wertz's fire department pager went off at 12:20 a.m. Jan. 23 with a call from Bedford County's emergency dispatching center seeking help for hundreds of drivers stranded on a snow-clogged stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Allegheny Mountain Tunnel.
Wertz, 49, chief of Shawnee Valley Volunteer Fire Department, met at the fire hall in nearby Schellsburg with member Justin Milburn and plowed through snow in a four-wheel-drive brush truck to an access gate at mile 138.
“We had about a foot of snow already, and they said they had a backup on the turnpike. I had no idea what it was going to be like when we got there,” he said.
What awaited them was a roughly 16-mile line of traffic that had been building since a tractor-trailer hauling chocolate triggered a 5.6-mile backup when it crashed and blocked the westbound lanes about 5:21 p.m., turnpike officials told the Tribune-Review in response to questions.
The incident drew national attention and raised questions about whether turnpike officials moved fast enough to help drivers who were stranded overnight and relied largely on volunteer emergency responders from nearby small towns who could reach the area. No one died or was seriously injured, but state officials promised to examine the response.
Exacerbating the problem as heavy snow fell, at least two tractor-trailers at 7:40 p.m. blocked the turnpike's westbound lanes as they struggled to climb the east slope of Allegheny Mountain near mile 123, officials said. Shortly after 9 p.m., the backlog grew when westbound traffic was stopped near the Kegg Maintenance Building at mile 132.2 to prevent more vehicles from entering narrow “cattle chutes” in place because of a construction project.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission this week is expected to release initial results of an investigation it began into the state's response to the backlog that, for some, lasted for more than 24 hours. Based on interviews with first responders, 911 dispatchers and drivers, updates from Gov. Tom Wolf's office and other official sources, a story emerged of firefighters from small rural departments and other volunteers teaming up to begin checking on stranded drivers and, in some cases, delivering food and water before Pennsylvania National Guard forces arrived.
A time line of events shows that turnpike officials realized the storm's severity on the afternoon of Jan. 22 and moved up plans to lower the speed limit and ban large trucks, but it was too late.
Many drivers dialing 911 reached Bedford County's dispatch center, which handled 351 calls — more than double its typical weekend rate, said Emergency Management Director Dave Cubbison.
Bedford County dispatched members of small volunteer fire departments and other first responders in response to a request from the turnpike at 11:54 p.m. Jan. 22, hours after the backup began. The Pennsylvania National Guard would not arrive until after 9 a.m. that Saturday, meaning it was up to the volunteer departments to check on miles of cars, buses and trucks stuck in the westbound lanes.
“I was amazed. I would have never thought it would have been anything like that,” Wertz said.
He and Milburn joined other volunteer firefighters who spent the next 27 hours painstakingly making their way across the valley and up the mountain, and then circling down and up again, checking on stranded motorists, one at a time, to make sure they were safe.
Truck driver Mark Lusk, 45, of Charleroi was stuck at mile 134 for 25 hours, beginning Jan. 22. He said he first saw firefighters from Bedford on Saturday morning.
“The firefighters were just going vehicle to vehicle, seeing if they needed anything, if they needed supplies,” Lusk said.
Firefighters on all-terrain vehicles delivered supplies to those who needed them, he said.
“They were mostly using the quads to supply water and sandwiches if people were hungry out there,” Lusk said.
Later that day, he saw National Guard soldiers digging cars out of the snow so they could travel up the shoulder to make a U-turn onto the eastbound lanes.
At the western edge of the backup, volunteer firefighters from Shanksville and Berlin, two small towns on the other side of the Allegheny Tunnel, worked their way down the mountain, checking on travelers from that end.
Wertz eventually met up with a firefighter from Berlin. Throughout the evening, he heard dispatches from volunteer firefighters from New Baltimore who were working the eastern end of the traffic jam.
About 10 members of the Shawnee Valley VFD came out to help on the mountain. Others couldn't reach the firehouse.
“Some of our guys couldn't even get out because they live on township roads that hadn't been plowed,” Wertz said.
In some areas, Wertz was able to steer through the backup. Some drivers would wave and give them a thumbs up. Others were sleeping, so the firefighters got out and pounded on car windows.
“Hardly anyone was nasty, but one lady must have been pretty mad. She flipped us off. But everyone else was being really nice,” he said.
When the Shawnee Valley brush truck skidded down an embankment, a group of teenage boys and their chaperones got out of a stranded bus and rallied around the truck. Using 5-gallon buckets, chunks of cardboard and shovels from the firefighters, they freed the truck and pushed it up the hill.
“Without them helping us, we would have never got out without a tow truck,” Wertz said.
The volunteers and a contingent of turnpike workers and state troopers manned the snow-choked roadway through the night and morning of Jan. 23, when other volunteers and first responders arrived with all-terrain vehicles, water, fuel and food.
“We were blessed in that they did not come across any injuries,” said Cubbison, with Bedford's 911 center.
A Wal-Mart store donated 35 cases of water, and local eateries and stores assembled sandwiches, he said.
“Lots of businesses and individuals were bringing foods, and fire departments were all cooperating,” Cubbison said.
Wertz was impressed with the response.
“I have to give the community around our area credit. They came out and provided all kinds of help. There were units from Bedford, Blair and Somerset County, and I thank them all,” Wertz said.
By the time he left around 3:30 a.m. Sunday, things were beginning to clear up.
“There were still over 200 tractor-trailers stuck on the mountain,” the chief said.
Wertz, a meat cutter at a Bedford grocery store, went home, napped and made it to work at 7 a.m. Sunday.
Debra Erdley and Jeremy Boren are Tribune-Review staff writers. Staff writers Gideon Bradshaw and Brad Bumsted contributed to this report.