Aided by sunshine and moderating temperatures yesterday afternoon, state road crews freed 178 miles of highway from a tenacious ice-and-snow grip that had stranded motorists, seriously disrupted trucking, and brought Pennsylvania embarrassing national publicity.

Interstates 78 and 80, both major east-west routes, and Interstate 81, a north-south road that connects them, reopened at 4 p.m.

Now starts the process of deciding how a relatively minor storm caused such mayhem and why the state was so slow to respond.

"To have a major interstate closed for that amount of time is ridiculous," said Bruce Biedenharn, manager at the massive Cabela's sports outfitter store just off I-78 in Hamburg. "You might as well say the store has been devastated the last three days."

A typical Saturday brings in 10,000 customers. By 2 p.m. yesterday, the store had had about 500, Biedenharn said. He said he hoped business bounced back today now that I-78 was open, but worried about a next time.

"We've got to get a better plan of attack if something like this happens again," he said.

About 20 miles to the east in Fogelsville, Allen Eck and two friends were sharing beers at the Fogelsville Hotel when the barriers came down at the I-78 interchange nearby, at Route 100.

Eck, of Allentown, called the state's failure to treat the highways properly before the Valentine's Day storm "disappointing for all the money you spend in taxes." Some travelers were stranded on I-78 for 24 hours.

"I don't know if anyone should really be punished," said Eck, 34, a heating and air-conditioning technician. "But they should find out what happened and correct the problem."

Added bartender Tracey Masenheimer: "They're lucky nobody died."

An angry Gov. Rendell issued an apology Friday to all motorists caught up in the fiasco and promised a state investigation expected to begin this week.

It was a storm that by Oswego, N.Y., standards would be a big yawn. But, as Rendell has acknowledged, Pennsylvania blew it when it came to preparing the Pocono-area highways, particularly I-78, one of the nation's most heavily traveled truck routes.

Sleet fell from about 7 a.m. to noon Wednesday, then turned to snow on the hilly highway, which cuts through a valley that traps cold air. Temperatures along that stretch of the road never got out of the 20s on Wednesday.

Those conditions led to a tractor-trailer accident late Wednesday morning that blocked lanes. Wreckers couldn't get to the mangled rigs because cars were stacked up behind the accident. That meant plows couldn't treat and clear the highway.

Yet, inexplicably, motorists were still permitted onto the road, resulting in a 50-mile train of idling trucks, SUVs and sedans that sat, and sat, and sat some more.

Day turned to night. Rendell said no mention of stranded motorists had been made during a conference call among state agencies during the day Wednesday. He didn't hear of them, he said, until 8 p.m., when a member of his private security detail informed him at his home in Philadelphia.

That was when Rendell activated the National Guard, sending 500 troops to rescue motorists who needed medical help and to distribute food, water and fuel to those who stayed with their vehicles.

By 3 a.m. Thursday, many had made it off the highway – not that they could go far. With I-78, I-80 and I-81 closed, many had to check into hotels – or, in the case of the truckers, park wherever they could and wait for the clearing to start.

That was no simple task with ice six inches thick in spots. With road salt ineffective below 20 degrees, crews had to use liquid magnesium chloride. About 150 Pennsylvania Department of Transportation employees from across the state were called in to work around the clock for nearly three days, using 141 pieces of heavy equipment, including graders that cut through ice.

Though by yesterday afternoon most of the roads showed no traces of ice or snow on the travel lanes, state police last night continued to urge motorists to use caution until all slick spots have been treated.

"Unacceptable" was how Rendell described the state's bungling. But he's not stopping at adjectives. He has called in James Lee Witt, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who is a public-safety consultant, to conduct an independent investigation. The state Senate's Transportation Committee and Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee are also looking for answers. A hearing is set for Thursday.

Acknowledging "we all make mistakes," Rendell would not rule out the possibility Friday that someone in state government could be fired.

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 610-313-8095 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Anthony R. Wood contributed to this article.