Accidents, delayed flights and travel headaches across the region

An even nastier than expected late-winter storm punished the region today with several hours of stinging sleet, closing roads and schools and causing innumerable accidents, travel problems and headaches.

After an overnight rain, the surprisingly steady sleet and temperatures near freezing conspired to create a slushy, dangerous sheen that was a nightmare for motorists. The result was hundreds of accidents and at least one fatality that may have been weather related.

It became so dicey that officials decided to close the Jersey-bound lanes of the Vine Street Expressway between the Schuylkill and 95 for a half hour to remove ice.

Still smarting from the Valentine's Day disaster on Interstate 78, where some motorists were stranded for as much as 24 hours, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation closed off a 6-mile stretch of I-84, in the Poconos, after a tractor-trailer crash.

With problems here and elsewhere from the sprawling and complex storm, Philadelphia International Airport became a huge holding area. Delays were running as long as four hours, and U.S. Airways, United and Southwest all canceled flights, an airport spokesman said.

This marked the second time in a little over a month that the region was ambushed by a major sleet storm. Sleet usually indicates a transition between rain and snow, and it is unusual for it to be the main event.

Up to an inch of sleet had accumulated in Chester County by midafternoon. All the precipitation was forecast to turn to snow, with several inches possible

in the northern and western suburbs by morning.

Meanwhile, heavy rains were pounding southern Delaware, where flooding was feared.

The storm affecting the region was expected to intensify and move to the New England coast.

It is impacting almost the entire eastern third of the nation, said Paul Mauser, a meteorologist with the government's Hydrometeorological Prediction Center.

"It's quite remarkable," he said.

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or