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Forum News Service, Published January 12 2014

Rain puts travel on ice in Duluth

DULUTH, Minn. – With cars and trucks turned every which way and traffic at a standstill Sunday morning, Jay Newkirk carefully made his way on foot up ice-coated Mesaba Avenue in Duluth as freezing rain continued to fall.

“I’ve never seen it like this before, where you could literally skate down Mesaba if you wanted to,” he said.

A round of freezing rain put travel in Duluth and much of the Northland on ice – literally – for several hours Sunday. Duluth police advised no travel for a time, and the Duluth Transit Authority suspended bus service in the late morning hours until conditions improved. There were dozens of spinouts and crashes in Duluth and south along Interstate 35, and conditions were equally treacherous for pedestrians trying to navigate ice-glazed sidewalks.

By early afternoon, with salt trucks out, the sun making sporadic appearances and temperatures climbing above freezing, the worst had passed. But earlier, there was havoc.

Jim Hansen, public information officer for the Duluth Police Department, said many drivers were caught off guard by the freezing rain, which quickly coated pavement with a slick coat of ice between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.

“The conditions changed so quickly, and they were just right for making ice. It got bad really fast,” he said.

Newkirk, of Duluth, opted to walk the final few blocks to his home after working an overnight shift in Cloquet.

“I saw glare ice on the interstate; I was doing 20, 25 miles per hour all the way from Cloquet,” he said. “I turned up Mesaba, and I got up to about Fourth and saw the backup, so I turned around and parked on Fourth. … I am so glad I saw it coming.”

That’s because above Fourth Avenue, vehicles were stuck – either spun out, or just unable to gain traction to get uphill and unwilling to risk what might happen going downhill.

Howie Weller was among them. He had headed out from his home on West Ninth Street to buy a paper, and found his minivan sliding down Mesaba below Seventh Street.

“I started to go sideways … and hoped for a snowbank” to stop his forward progress, Weller recounted from the driver’s seat of his vehicle, which ended up stopped by the snow-covered curb that separates downbound Mesaba from the exit ramp to Second Avenue West.

“I’ve never seen this before,” he said. “I’ve driven up here in bad weather, snowstorms, but have never seen anything like this. You can’t go anywhere.”

Every so often, a driver among the many stuck on Mesaba – driven by optimism, or boredom – touched the gas pedal, hoping that perhaps the temperature had risen just enough to loosen the ice and provide some traction.

The whine of spinning tires signaled the futility of those efforts, until sun, salt and sand combined to clear the way later in the day. Similar scenes played out on streets large and small around the Twin Ports and elsewhere in the region. In rural areas, many motorists opted to drive on the snow-covered shoulders of roads because they provided better traction than the snow-free but ice-coated driving lanes.

Accident reports

Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske said troopers responded to reports of 36 crashes and 25 vehicles off the road Sunday in the Duluth and Virginia districts, with the highest levels of activity in and around Duluth. By noon, however, conditions had improved and calls greatly diminished.

Most of the accidents resulted only in property damage.

“There were no serious-injury accidents that I’m aware of,” Roeske said.

Likewise, Hansen said few accidents in the city involved injuries. He said he was aware of just one personal injury accident on city streets, and it was non-life-threatening.

But there were plenty of fender benders, with Duluth police responding to 65 calls for service related to collisions, or vehicles off the road or stuck. Hansen said it was fortunate that the freezing rain struck on a Sunday rather than during a weekday morning commute, when the accident count likely would have been even larger.

The Duluth Fire Department also struggled with icy roads Sunday morning. One of its rigs slid off the road and into a ditch near the intersection of Swan Lake and Arrowhead roads, and the wrecker that went to retrieve it had to put on tire chains in order get enough traction.

“It was glare ice everywhere,” said Deputy Fire Chief Bryan Bushey, who noted that the rig sustained no damage as a result of the mishap.

Hansen said one police squad was involved in a minor traffic accident when it slid backwards on an icy hill Sunday morning.

A State Patrol unit also sustained damage when an officer was helping a disabled motorist near Willow River, but Roeske said the trooper on the scene was not injured.