Gorge closure; people stranded overnight recount experiences

ST. GEORGE — Interstate 15 was closed for over 12 hours last night on a section between the Nevada, Arizona and Utah borders known as the Virgin River Gorge.  St. George News has received reports from many of the folks who were stranded in their vehicles overnight. Although hundreds of vehicles were stuck on the road, plus many who slid off the road, no injuries have been reported, and all lanes have been opened as of approximately 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

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Members of the Desert Hills cross country team inside the stranded bus, Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, Dec. 8, 2013 | Photo by Scott Sandberg, St. George News

One of the vehicles stranded was a school bus full of 56 athletes, parents and coaches from the Desert Hills High School Cross Country team. Parents and Coaches of the team reported that the bus slid off the road just past the Cedar Pocket exit and became stranded in a long line of cars for over 12 hours through the night. Although the bus had enough gas to keep the engine running and the heater on all night, some of the other stranded vehicles on the roadway had to turn their vehicles off to preserve gas. For a video interview of the coach and a team member, click here.

View from inside the stranded bus, Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, Dec. 8, 2013 | Photo by Scott Sandberg, St. George News
View from inside the stranded bus, Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, Dec. 8, 2013 | Photo by Scott Sandberg, St. George News

On Sunday morning, the coach had some of the players gather extra blankets, and jackets for other drivers in their vicinity who had to shut their cars off, Scott Sandburg, a sophomore on the team, said. The team supplied blankets, jackets and food to a few cars, one of which was an elderly couple and another was a mom with a young child and a newborn who were cold and running low on food, Coach Logan Fielding said.

Many of the people stranded worked together throughout the night and morning to to help each other stay warm and get their vehicles turned around in the icy conditions, Fielding said. The team members were not able to make phone calls, because of bad reception but they were able to sporadically send text messages home to family members. Once the Gorge was open again, the team’s bus proceeded to Desert Hills High School where it was met by anxious parents and friends.

From St. George, Dixie High School and Pine View High School each had wrestling teams returning from matches Saturday. They too got stuck in the Gorge, reportedly in a traditional school bus.

Besides the efforts of the wrestling team, there were Arizona Highway Patrol officers and Washington County Sheriff Search and Rescue members working throughout the canyon to help stranded drivers. These rescue teams were able to check on all of the vehicles, Commander Casey Lofthouse of the Washington County Search and Rescure said. The Search and Rescue team sent out 4×4 vehicles to pass out gas, water, and information throughout the night. Most semitrailer drivers slept in their trucks while rescue teams slowly managed to turn around many of the compact cars stuck in the northbound lanes and direct them back towards Mesquite, Nevada.

Interstate closure forced semi trucks to line up off the Southern Parkway exit, Washington County, Utah, Dec. 8, 2013 | Photo by Scott Heinecke, St. George News
Interstate closure forced semi trucks to line up off the Southern Parkway exit, Washington County, Utah, Dec. 8, 2013 | Photo by Scott Heinecke, St. George News

One of the many vehicles stranded was occupied by Misty and Troy Hamilton. After being stranded in the Gorge for over 10 hours, they were evacuated back towards Mesquite Sunday morning. The Hamiltons took a back road, Highway 91, and arrived in St. George by approximately 10 a.m., Misty Hamilton’s mom, Peggy Wardle, said. They reported that the condition of the Gorge was pretty scary and multiple vehicles had slid off the road, Wardle said. Even the drive back on Highway 91 was slow.

Headed southbound from the Utah side, there was a log jam of cars and semitrailers as well. One of the semitrailer drivers that had been diverted off the Interstate was Jason D. Phillips, a truck driver from Wisconsin. With over 11 years of truck driving experience, this sort of thing is not unusual to Phillips, he said. Early Sunday morning, he was driving southbound toward California when they diverted his semitrailer, as he was passing through the SunRiver area. Phillips said he’s seen much worse in other areas of the country but never anything like this in this particular area.

“This is not uncommon,” Phillips said, “if they have a bad storm or a bad wreck … sometimes you’ll be sitting for a day or two before they open the road back up again.”

Even though other parts of the country see storms like this often, this blizzard was very unusual for this area and proved to be too much to keep the Interstate open.

“The road basically closed itself,” Lofthouse said.

The Interstate  in both directions had been officially closed by the Arizona Highway Patrol at 1 a.m. MST Sunday. Sunday morning, rescuers had many of the stranded semitrailer’s attach chains to their truck tires and head north.  Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Highway Patrol also joined the effort Sunday morning, UDOT Roadway Operations Manager Todd Abbott said. UDOT with a snow plow and both UDOT and UHP assisting in traffic control.

By 12:30 p.m. Sunday, the Interstate was clear and the majority of the vehicles were out of the canyon.

Overall, this area received nearly 10 straight hours of snow leading up to the closure of the Interstate. The area also received  five hours of below freezing temps between 3 a.m. and 8 a.m. according to the National Weather Service Forecasting Office.

St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic, and reporters Shane Brinkerhoff and Drew Allred contributed to this report.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.


Interstate closure forced semi trucks to line up off the Southern Parkway exit, Washington County, Utah, Dec. 8, 2013 | Photo by Scott Heinecke, St. George News
Interstate closure forced semi trucks to line up off the Southern Parkway exit, Washington County, Utah, Dec. 8, 2013 | Photo by Scott Heinecke, St. George News



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  • San December 8, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    There needs to be a conversation started about how a local military unit, two states full of rescue personel, ect….could not get a woman with a newborn baby off of that freeway overnight. Are you serious? It was 8″ of snow, not 8ft.

    A friend called me tonight….she was one of the ones on the AZ side of the Gorge, stuck there overnight. There was no warning of the situation she drove into and she called to ask me what had happened on the road. She didn’t see any helpers out until 8am this morning and they offered her water and a bag of peanuts. She said that she (a SLC resident) and the other drivers close to her could have kept going but were stopped from doing so. She doesn’t know why. She’s complaining that the truckers could have easily put on their chains last night and been fine. Truckers were apparently allowed to chain up at sunrise, move, then remove the chains at Exit-6. When she exited there, before she ran out of fuel, she said that snow plows were parked.

    Lots of questions need to be asked.

    Were they held in place because rescue vehicles don’t carry chains? That’s how she made it sound….

    • bob December 8, 2013 at 9:46 pm

      you should call governor Herbert and complain…

    • matt December 9, 2013 at 2:51 am

      I was one of the lucky few stuck there. As with most news stories, many facts are distorted. For what could have turned tragic very quickly, there was a disappointing response. I spent the night and did not see anyone handing out supplies. It seems all the media reports on this event are from the morning, with sunny pictures. And interviewing people that were just beginning a trek south on Sunday.

      Fortunately, the weather cooperated at night and it was not that cold. I measured around 32 degrees. Secondly, someone could have easily careened off into a canyon where there were not guard rails. I came close to going over in one of these areas but was able to correct my slide, fortunately. And I was traveling at 2 mph. It is the worst black ice I have ever seen. I went around to check if people were okay and in need of food or water. Someone had to tell the police that they were freezing and to their credit they called in a helicopter to take the gentlemen out. I have a video of it and it was quite impressive to see it land in such a restricting area. I have a video of it arriving and then also leaving.

      I think we can Monday Morning QB this all day long. But I would have liked to have seen better show of authority and concern for the people. And better communication. One comment at a hotel in Mesquite was that the State of Arizona does not really care about this little corner of the state and that it is Nevada’s problem. And it ends up with little resources. Case in point. I traveled all over the West this weekend. Other states like Colorado and Utah had plows and sanders out continuously. I walked the highway quite a bit last night checking the ice and I did not see any hint of sand or plowing. The ice was few inches thick. It could have been prevented by running some plows and sand machines. Common sense.

      And my last comment will be that the truckers were driving very recklessly on the I-15 last night. I think they were trying to make up for lost time from eastern Utah and Colorado where conditions were worse. And I didn’t see any using chains prior. And I got continuously passed at very high speeds and they would throw snow, sleet and debris and completely blind the cars they were passing. But they were traveling 70 mph in these conditions further north.

      I’m very surprised and glad no one got hurt seriously. And all will be forgotten on this story.

    • matt December 9, 2013 at 2:53 am

      clarification. not saying this particular news article is not accurate. I’m saying in my general scan of national media and video and pictures, I was not impressed.

    • Mr. Smith December 9, 2013 at 9:15 am

      I was in the gorge as well that dreadful night and I am in agreement with those on here who say there was no sign of said “rescue workers”. Only the helicopter that was mentioned. The rest of us were on our own until 8 in the morning.

      • Mr. Jones December 9, 2013 at 10:22 am

        Well maybe next time the government can bring you some warm cookies and milk and a fluffy blanky and make it all better. Sheesh, it was a bad situation and some got caught in it. plan ahead next time or be better prepared.

        • Mr. Smith December 9, 2013 at 2:03 pm

          Just setting the record strait Mr. Jones. No need to criticize me or the others involved.

  • Lil Mama December 8, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    How amazing are our St. George kids. I support another high school, but I am so proud of the youth who took the initiative to help others. They could have dtayed huddled and warm in their bus and tried to sleep, but they thought about the other people stranded, and did what they could. Way to go DHHS!

  • My Evil Twin December 9, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    You people who are sniveling and whining about the emergency responders in the gorge just make me sick to my stomach. You are the same ones who complain about government “interference” in our lives, but then expect that same government to take care of you from the cradle to the grave.
    If you are not able to take care of yourself in a situation like this, then you don’t belong on the road. You really do make me sick.

  • Joe Momma December 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    I think the main point most of the “complainers” were making was that there was an inaccuracy in the reporting. One article I read stated that Emergency responders visited each stranded vehicle throughout the night. This is just not even remotely close to factual.

    Luckily my wife and I were a little prepared and had blankets and Gatorade. And, we had enough gas to run the car for heat for 10 minutes each hour or two.

    The thing that impressed me most was the kind offers of assistance from other travelers.. One elderly couple from Canada offered cookies and a bed in their motorhome for my young daughters, and a truck driver offered peaches, and food and water.

    I can’t speak for the cars outside my little 4-5 cars and trucks that were near me.. But we didn’t see any support vehicles or personnel until 8am or so. Not even one driving passed… Nothing. I wasn’t expecting to be saved but it was a little eerie not having cell service and not any communication.

  • Alli December 11, 2013 at 3:56 am

    They are not complaining, they are setting the record straight, because it’s wrong. Go on YouTube and look up frankblasvegad he did a series of 17 videos while he was stuck in the gorge.

  • Alli December 11, 2013 at 3:57 am

    Typo frankblasvegas

  • Jessika December 11, 2013 at 5:05 am

    Me and my hubby were stuck also n we live in Mesquite! Wanted to do some Christmas Shopping! We left close to 6pm got to st george 11pm their time! Only had time to put gas and go back to mesquite, after 2 hrs had to go back to st george! Me and my hubby had to stay in a hotel! Many pple said they heard since the morning they were closing the freeway. My question is why didnt they close it in the first place or let pple know to go back! They only had one snow plow n one cop!

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