HARRISBURG - David Stephenson was one of the lucky storm victims caught in the backup on I-78 that began Wednesday and continued today.
After reaching a line of stopped cars near Hamburg, west of Allentown, he maneuvered his Subaru onto the unplowed shoulder of this major east-west highway and crawled the 25 miles to Allentown.
"Conditions were horrific; it was a real obstacle course," said Stephenson, a homeland security consultant who was on his way home to Boston after visiting his mother in Newville, northeast of Harrisburg.
Others were not so fortunate. Hundreds of motorists were stranded overnight - when temperatures dipped to the low teens - and into today on a 50-mile hilly stretch of I-78 southwest of Allentown.
State officials, under mounting criticism over their handling of the storm, said an unusual combination of snow, ice and immovable vehicles left road crews unable to keep up. The storm dumped seven inches of snow on I-78, followed by a three-inch crust of ice.
Gov. Rendell declared a state of emergency this afternoon, directing all agencies to use full resources to cope with the storm.
Late Wednesday, National Guardsmen deployed in humvees ferried food, fuel and baby supplies, and state police used snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles to rescue some motorists and take them to shelter. No serious injuries were reported.
Police took fuel to some motorists and food to others, including several diabetics who called 911, State Trooper Shawn Mell said.
Late this afternoon, after removing the stranded motorists from I-78, PennDot announced it was closing I-78 and stretches of I-80 (from Line Ridge, east of Bloomsburg, to the intersection of I-81 north of Hazleton) and I-81 (from Fort Indiantown Gap, northeast of Harrisburg, to Wilkes-Barre) in central and eastern Pennsylvania indefinitely, in order to fully plow and treat the highways.
The storm forced trucker Bobby Crutcher, 36, to detour away from I-78, which had been closed in sections.
He pulled out of Nashville on Wednesday afternoon, expecting to deliver his load of water heaters in New Jersey no later than today at noon.
Because of the storm, he said last night, he now expected to arrive tomorrow.
"It took an extra seven hours to get here," he said last night, after pulling into the Allentown service plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension. "It cost an extra $60 in tolls and 150 miles out of route that I won't get paid for."
"This is the first time I've ever heard of anything like this on the East Coast," Crutcher said as he prepared to bed down in his cab. "Out west they've got pretty big mountains, and they close the roads when it gets bad like this. But most times on the East Coast up here, they keep the roads pretty good."
Crutcher, who has been behind the wheel for 20 years, said the storm had been "a little inconvenient, but, you know, that comes with truck driving."
Answering their critics, transportation officials and state police said their response was the best possible under unusual conditions.
"It was a unique storm: heavy snow, ice, then snow," said Col. Jeffrey Miller, Pennsylvania State Police commissioner. "PennDot had an advisory to stay off the road, but we had more motorists than we hoped to see."
Stephenson, the motorist who escaped in his Subaru, said he saw no reason why plows were not out earlier Wednesday, ahead of the backups, or why the highway was not closed immediately.
"There was very little traffic in the morning, and there was room for plows," he said.
"This storm was rare because of the unusual amount of snow and ice," said state Transportation Secretary Allen D. Biehler. "This series of accidents that blocked our way made it really, really difficult."
Scores of vehicles were stuck in the snow, and there was a jumble of jackknifed tractor-trailers, officials said today at a late afternoon news conference.
"We moved quickly until it became clear that we were not going to be able to keep up with it," he said. "We believe we acted with the information we had at the time."
Nevertheless, Biehler said, the agency would conduct a review of its response to the storm.
A toll collector at the Lehigh Valley interchange on the Northeast Extension who gave his name only as Will said tonight that he'd been handling a lot of questions about nearby I-78 since his shift began at 6 a.m.
Mostly, he was helping truckers with alternate directions. "They've been fairly calm, considering," he said. "A lot better than I'd probably be. I haven't gotten yelled at."