After turnpike debacle, blizzard of questions

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Traffic is at a standstill on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Bedford, Pa., Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016.

For nearly 24 hours, said Philadelphia lawyer Mark Kaltenbach, he had gone nowhere but the driver's seat of his car, stranded with 500 other motorists on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was dark, bitter cold - wind chills were in the single digits - and blizzardlike conditions were everywhere. He got out of his car and walked.

Kaltenbach trudged in snow 2 to 3 feet deep from mile marker 129 to mile marker 127.5, only to find that a turnpike telephone recording had wrongly said he would find emergency workers there. Motorists he passed rolled down windows and asked if he knew anything. One man was keeping his three sons warm with an idling engine but was running out of gas.

"Most of us didn't have food. Most of us didn't have bathrooms," Kaltenbach said. "There was no communication to us. I felt very much abandoned by public entities and government."

What went down on the westbound lanes of the Pennsylvania Turnpike between the Bedford and Somerset exits last Friday night into Saturday night is the subject of agency investigations and a planned legislative hearing - and is a 2016 commonwealth version of the movie Groundhog Day.

Two other times in the last nine years, hundreds of motorists got stuck in colossal winter jams on Pennsylvania highways - once, for eight hours, another time for 24 hours. Each time, officials said they would examine what happened to prevent it from occurring again.

After the mess that drew national headlines last weekend by trapping some motorists for 24 hours, top state officials have emphasized all they did under horrific, whiteout conditions to ensure the safety of those stranded. However, they haven't addressed the vexing question: Why did it take so long to get motorists off the road during a storm people knew for days was coming?

'We succeeded'

Gov. Wolf cast the incident as a near-perfect storm of uncontrollable factors during a historic event - and distanced his administration from the Turnpike Commission, the entity responsible for managing the roadway and clearing it when backups occur.

"As far as the state is concerned, the Pennsylvania State Police, National Guard, Emergency Management Agency, and PennDot responded quickly when the problem arose to make sure that people were safe," Wolf said, "and we succeeded."

"No one was hurt, there were no deaths, and it was because of the state's response," said Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan.

Turnpike Commission chief executive Mark Compton, who serves at the pleasure of commissioners chosen by the governor, has publicly accepted full responsibility, two years after another winter turnpike mess that prompted hearings and a pledge to do better.

"I own this. This is on me," Compton told The Inquirer. "Clearly, this is not what anyone should come to expect of traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. There's no question."

'Key lesson'

In March 2014, Compton was similarly contrite before the Senate Transportation Committee, when he explained why motorists on the turnpike were stranded for eight hours in icy conditions near Willow Grove.

Under questioning by Sen. John Rafferty Jr., Compton was reminded of a 2007 Valentine's Day storm on I-78 near Allentown, which had stranded motorists for up to 24 hours.

"One of the key lessons learned from the 2007 storm," Compton said at the time, "was to make sure there is care for the [motorist] backlog that may not be involved in the accident but are trapped because they can't get through."

Kaltenbach said he and other motorists stranded near him endured with no such support.

Emergency workers escorted him from his car about 8:30 p.m. Saturday and into a bus, where he saw a woman with a sick dog.

"The dog looked terrible. Was throwing up. Looked miserable," Kaltenbach recalled. "It seems very difficult to believe that that situation could ever be justified."

The trouble began about 8 p.m. Friday in a construction cattle chute with no shoulders at mile marker 126, on a 40-mile stretch of turnpike with no official exits or entrances - the longest such stretch, Compton said.

Several tractor trailers jackknifed up a steep incline, causing a standstill for 11 miles behind them. Among the vehicles stranded was a bus carrying members of the Temple University women's gymnastics team. Fortunately for them, their cargo included snacks, movies, and playing cards.

According to Richard Lohr, emergency management coordinator for Somerset County, local rescue crews struggled with digging out themselves before getting to the scene. Snow was falling fast and heavily.

But four hours had passed before Lohr even got the request to dispatch firefighters to do safety checks on motorists. Then, he added, about 2 a.m., those firefighters were called off before being brought back an hour or so later.

"Someone - not on this end - sent them home," said Lohr. "There was no coordination on the part of the turnpike. This is a major highway and they should have plans in place to deal with this."

For his part, Wolf had declared an emergency and activated the National Guard well in advance of the storm, said Richard Flinn Jr., director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

But the turnpike, Flinn explained, controlled key decision-making on that road.

Only the turnpike can decide whether to close the highway for bad weather. And only the turnpike can decide how and when to begin dismantling the permanent concrete barriers that keep stranded vehicles from making U-turns into opposing traffic.

"It's frustrating," Flinn said. "I only wish that we could have reduced the number of people on that road."

After a 2007 debacle on I-78 that prompted then-Gov. Ed Rendell to say: "I personally apologize to every motorist who was stranded," PennDot responded with preventive action.

The transportation agency installed metal gates along that highway's concrete median so crews could remove cars in future accidents more easily, said spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick.

Compton explored such a measure after an icy mess trapped motorists for eight hours near Willow Grove in early 2014. Sen. Rafferty had raised the issue of installing them during the hearing that year.

But Compton said he did not pursue installing any on the 540 miles of turnpike road, concerned that they might rust or be unsafe in a collision.

They might have made a difference last weekend. Crews were unable to remove some concrete barriers until about midday Saturday.

Daunting job

Just getting heavy equipment onto the highway was daunting. Snow had to be cleared from a few emergency access gates off the highway. Then, heavy wreckers made their way toward the head of the bottleneck.

Once there, they slowly towed disabled tractor trailers out of the cattle chute and up a steep, slippery slope, Compton said. Crews also turned vehicles around at a nearby maintenance facility, but turnpike officials kept eastbound traffic flowing until Saturday morning.

Only when they closed those lanes, too, could work begin on removing sections of concrete barrier, Compton said. When finally approached with help, motorists such as Kaltenbach were told to leave their vehicles on the road.

Even as Compton's agency, the State Police, and PEMA conduct reviews of the affair, Compton said he would give metal gates a second look.

When told of Kaltenbach's bleak account, Compton expressed empathy.

"I kept thinking, 'If my own family was involved in this, what would I be doing differently?' At the time, I couldn't think of a single thing."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

610-313-8117 @Panaritism