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375 vehicles trapped in snow

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
Tow truck driver Steve Ard helps a stranded motorist to a waiting van Monday on Washington Street, east of Urbana.

EFFINGHAM (AP) – Several semis jackknifed along snowy interstates in southern Illinois, setting off nasty chain reactions that stranded about 375 vehicles for several hours and required 10-ton military trucks known as “wreckers” to clear the scene early Monday.

“It was one of those things – it was the worst possible combination of circumstances,” said Jonathon Monken, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

Monken said Sunday night’s pileups – spread across three locations near the intersection of interstates 57 and 70 in Effingham – resembled the sea of vehicles buried by snow along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive during a massive 2011 snow storm. But there was one major difference: There were no fatalities or injuries overnight Sunday, largely because motorists either stayed with their cars or were rescued and taken to nearby warming centers.

The pileups occurred amid a winter storm that brought record-shattering cold temperatures and up to 15 inches of snow to parts of the state.

Monken said the trouble started when a few semis overturned, blocking the roadways a few miles north of Effingham on Interstate 57 and just east of the city on Interstate 70. Snow drifts as high as 8 feet piled up against the semis, preventing cars from getting through. Those cars then became covered by snow drifts.

Gov. Pat Quinn had to declare a statewide disaster in order to activate the Illinois National Guard and its wreckers – eight-wheel-drive camouflage vehicles that Monken said the military typically uses to recover Humvees – because the state’s snow plows couldn’t get to the area. The wreckers also pulled six semis from the pileups.

“First you had to get the semis out of the way. Then you have to get the plows in to get rid of the drifts, and then you can get the cars out of the way,” said Monken, who estimated it took more than 100 emergency personnel about 6 hours to clear the area.

Meanwhile authorities conducted a kind of triage, taking motorists who were running out of gas or who didn’t have enough coats or blankets to warming centers. Monken said some people who’d been better prepared bundled up and fell asleep before the areas were clear, around 4 a.m. Monday.

“By the time the roads were open the troopers had to go wake them up,” he said.

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