ARIZONA STRIP – A section of Interstate 15 Arizona mile posts 23-26 in the Virgin River Gorge completely iced over Saturday night and is blocked with semitrailers unable to proceed. The gorge is closed to northbound travel indefinitely.
Travelers on I-15 are advised by Arizona Highway Patrol to find lodging in Mesquite until Arizona Department of Transportation clears the Gorge for passable travel.
The situation was precipitated by a single vehicle accident around 6 p.m. Saturday. A Chevrolet pickup carrying three or four people slid off the highway at Arizona mile post 26 (about seven miles from the Arizona-Utah border) into the median and dropped 6-8 feet down an embankment into a drainage culvert. The roadway got blocked at that point, AHP Sgt. John Bottoms said, when people passing by stopped to try to assist the people in the Chevy pickup. AHP and emergency responders reached the people who were transported with minor injuries to the hospital.
Meanwhile, an 18-wheeler, semitrailer, coming up on the accident then jack-knifed, Bottoms said, further blocking the road and traffic began to back up.
The traffic backup then blocked the snow plows from getting through, Bottoms said, and when the snow system passed, temperatures dropped and the snow turned to ice creating new problems for the semitrailers attempting to proceed at that point.
Two 18-wheeler commercial semitrailers in particular are having difficulties, Bottoms said. Because the section of highway where the ice has formed is on an incline, although the drivers have put chains on the tractors, every time they start to move the trailers behind them start to slide sideways. There is a guard rail that prohibits them from pulling the trailer too far off, Bottoms said. Because it’s an embanked highway, he said, if they pull the trailer too far it will roll off and down into the median and into the southbound lanes. And, Bottoms said, every time they try to move forward they end up blocking more and more of the highway – backing up traffic which further impedes snow plow access.
Getting snow plows to the problem area is critical but precarious. Critical because until the plows can address the iced area with cinders, sand or chemicals to try and melt it, there can be no passage. But given the icy conditions, although one snow plow is attempting to turn around and reach the area by traveling against traffic on the opposite side, there is also a risk of the plow sliding and becoming immobilized.
There is no cell service in that section of the Gorge, Bottoms said.
AHP and ADOT efforts continue through the night, Temperatures continue to drop and additional ice patches may develop.
Those with intended travel through the Gorge might as well stay in Mesquite, Nev., Bottom said.
“I can’t even estimate how long it will take to clear,” he said.
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