Rare snowstorm traps I-15 motorists overnight on Arizona Strip

Published: Sunday, Dec. 8 2013 2:15 p.m. MST

Commuters drive near the University of Utah in a snow storm Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. Up to 300 vehicles were stuck overnight Saturday on the Arizona Strip, a 30-mile stretch of I-15 between Utah and Nevada in northwestern Arizona because of an unusual snowstorm.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

ST. GEORGE — For seven hours, Ashlee Bruan's car was stuck on the freeway in below freezing temperatures.

"We had like half a tank (of gas), so we had to turn it on for 10, 15 minutes then turn it off and wait an hour before it started getting cold again and turn it back on," Braun said Sunday.

She was in one of an estimated 300 vehicles stranded on I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge along the Arizona Strip late Saturday night through Sunday morning in a rare snowstorm that brought traffic to a standstill because of snow-covered roads and icy bridges.

Motorists were caught by surprise by a cold, heavy storm system. Arizona Highway Patrol troopers closed both northbound and southbound I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge just before midnight Saturday, from milepost 26 (three miles from the Utah state line) to milepost 8 (eight miles from Nevada), according to Tom Herrmann, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Many Utahns traveling back from a weekend in Las Vegas found themselves trapped in the Gorge.

Braun was headed home to New Harmony, Washington County, after spending the weekend at the National Finals Rodeo in Vegas. She got into the Gorge and was about 10 miles from St. George when all traffic stopped.

"About halfway through, we came up on a bunch of vehicles and we were stopped in the same spot for only 2 ½ hours. Then we probably moved, I don't know, a quarter of a mile maybe, then we were stopped for another seven hours," she said.

"There was no plows or service vehicles or anything. We saw one service vehicle throughout the night. We just kind of felt like nobody was doing anything."

Braun's group had no food. She said a person on a four-wheel ATV drove by in the morning telling them that officials were going to try and turn them around. But Braun said it wasn't until the driver in front of her got out of his car and started organizing with the other drivers that they finally got everyone turned around.

Braun drove back toward Nevada, out of the Gorge, and got home using Old Highway 91 over Utah Hill.

The northbound lanes of I-15 didn't reopen until just after noon on Sunday. The southbound lanes opened about 12:30 p.m., Herrmann said.

"What we had was a chain reaction crash situation that was helped by semitrailer rigs jackknifing ... and then vehicles either striking those trucks or being trapped in between all those trucks as they slid off the road or were blocking the highway," said Bart Graves, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

It was a slow process to unblock the two lanes and get traffic moving through the narrow road, which is walled by rocks on both sides. Graves said it can take "hours and hours" to unblock a 300-vehicle shutdown.

The Arizona Highway Patrol and Washington County search and rescue crews worked to provide gas, blankets and water to some of the trapped motorists, which included a few school buses.

There was only one medical emergency during the night, according to Graves. A man suffering from a heart problem was located by a trooper and was taken in his patrol car to another emergency vehicle.

Stacie Lawrence's 16-year-old daughter Clarissa was on a bus with her East High School cross country team coming back from a championship event in California. Lawrence's husband went as a chaperone and her son in junior high also went to run.

She said she was anxious about them making the drive back because she knew about the snowstorm. Her husband sent her a text message around 8 p.m. and said they were just outside of Mesquite.

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