HARRISBURG - As ice and snow pounded three interstate highways last week, PennDot lost control of its handling of the storm and the results were "disastrous," the head of the agency admitted yesterday.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Allen D. Biehler apologized for what he called the "utter failure" of his response to the Valentine's Day storm that trapped motorists and crippled I-78, I-80 and I-81 for four days in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Biehler testified before a joint hearing before two Senate committees looking into the state's disjointed and ineffectual response to the storm.

James Joseph, director of Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, also acknowledged to the committee that his agency waited too long to fully activate state emergency operations. By the time they were up and running though, sections of the three interstates were impassable.

Together, the two top emergency response officials, painted a disturbing picture of confusion and miscommunication that led to the weather fiasco's stranding motorists - some for as long as a day - and virtually halting truck traffic along a vital corridor to New York and New England.

While apologies filled the air yesterday, explanations for how the storm response unraveled were vague. PennDot's Biehler said only that the unusual combination of snow and ice overwhelmed plow operators and that he received inaccurate information from transportation officials in the field that delayed road closures and exacerbated backups.

"We lost control in the early hours of the storm and it had a domino effect . . . that led to disastrous consequences for hundreds of people," he said.

Joseph offered no details about why his agency - which is supposed to act as the central communications operation during an emergency - was so slow to ramp up this time. Biehler and Joseph, along with State Police Commissioner Jeffrey B. Miller and Maj. Gen. Jessica Wright, adjutant general of the Pennsylvania National Guard, were summoned to appear before the Senate Transportation and Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness committees to explain why the state was ill-prepared for a predicted storm and dragged its heels in its response.

Sen. Roger Madigan (R., Bradford), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he could not understand why a storm that "played out as predicted" would shut down roads and agencies.

"This stands out as a very black eye on the face of Pennsylvania state government," said Madigan.

Joseph, an Army brigadier general and former intelligence and operations director with the Pennsylvania National Guard, accepted blame for not notifying Gov. Rendell in a timely fashion.

Rendell, who last week took full responsibility for the disaster, said he did not find out until 8 p.m. Wednesday - 10 hours after the first wave of accidents on the snow-bound highways.

"That was my failure," Joseph said. "I didn't feel I had the information I needed at that point."

Sen. Michael O'Pake (D., Berks) called the series of breakdowns in the system "mindboggling."

Sounding exasperated, O'Pake asked, rhetorically, how PEMA could not have detected what was the beginning of a major emergency, so that "if we'd known earlier maybe we wouldn't be here today."

A mixture of precipitation, caused by fluctuating temperatures, created thick layers of ice on I-78 that stymied PennDot plows and led to a string of accidents that brought traffic to a halt on a 50-mile stretch of mountainous highway west of Allentown.

Among those trapped overnight in single-digit temperatures were pregnant women and families with sick children.

Some left their vehicles on the recommendation of the National Guard to take shelter at the Wilkes-Barre airport, only to discover later that their cars were towed by PennDot and that they had to pay $150 to get them back.

Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) said the state should reimburse the motorists "as a matter of decency," to which Biehler agreed.

Several lawmakers said the bungled storm response appeared to come from the fact it was managed by committee when a single "general" was needed.

"There needs to be a centralization, like the [federal military] joint chiefs of staff," said Sen. John Rafferty (R., Berks), who added he was not satisfied with the way emergencies are declared in the state.

Madigan and others wondered where the millions of dollars in post-9/11 homeland security funding had gone, if not to improve emergency response. The storm calamity raises questions, the legislators said, about whether Pennsylvania is prepared for a terrorist act or pandemic.

On Wednesday, the governor's office released a preliminary review of the state's response to the storm, which found that poor planning and sluggish response by PennDot, PEMA and the state police led to the problem.

Meanwhile, an independent investigation by the Washington consulting firm headed by former FEMA Director James Lee Witt is under way.

Rendell hired Witt, who last year completed a review of Philadelphia's emergency preparedness, to examine what went wrong with the storm response and offer recommendations for improvements. A preliminary report is expected in the next few weeks, Witt said.

Investigators will be paid on an hourly basis, with a total amount not to exceed $100,000, said Rendell's spokeswoman, Kate Philips.

Last night, Rendell activated the State Emergency Operations Center to help agencies respond to the closure of a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 80 in Clearfield County because of a snow squall and flash-freeze conditions.

The state House will be holding its hearing on the storm response today.

Angry E-mails from Stranded Motorists

Excerpts of e-mails sent to the state Senate:

"One major problem during the whole event was communication. While stranded I had no idea how long I would be there."

Joe Sauter, Scranton, Pa.

"I sat in a cold vehicle with nothing for 11 hours when I was 10 minutes from home. ... State police finally show up 10 hours later. ... My family called Pittston Township, 911, the State Police, PennDot, everybody said to call somebody else."

Lynn Leleo, Dunmore, Pa.

"What should have been a routine trip from Wilton, CT., to Bucknell U was a nightmare that lasted over 14 hours. Over 11 of them in the car in one spot on Rt. 80 ... not one police vehicle or other emergency person checked in on us all that time!

Kathie Kostic, Wilton, Conn.

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Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.