Snow, vehicles pile up as storm moves through western Montana
By 2 p.m. Sunday, most Missoula tow-truck services had every rig on the road and were calling in back-up drivers to help retrieve the countless numbers of smashed, flipped, stalled, stuck and crushed vehicles left in the wake of an early afternoon snowstorm.
In every direction across the valley, the morning's dry roads had turned into a sloppy, slick concoction of ice, slush and snow that had law enforcement officers asking their night shift colleagues to come into work early.
Conditions became so treacherous that an alert was issued around 1 p.m. recommending emergency travel only in the city of Missoula. By 2:30 p.m. the stretch of Interstate 90 between East Missoula and Turah was closed to all vehicles because of accidents and slick roads.
Several two-vehicle fender benders quickly turned into multi-car pileups on I-90, where one of the largest accidents, near East Missoula, involved more than 10 vehicles. Near the Sheep Ranch Inn on Highway 93 North, one multi-car accident triggered four separate but related incidents, said Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin.
"It's been a zoo," McMeekin said. "For a while there it seemed like we were getting a half a dozen accidents a minute."
Drivers found roads in town to be equally difficult to navigate. One motorist on Orange Street slid up and over the curb into Sacajewea Park. City police officers camped out in the lower Rattlesnake to assist drivers who had spun off roads, collided with telephone poles, sideswiped trees or were confused about where to go after being rerouted off I-90.
Both St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center hustled to treat the wave of accident victims, most of whom were treated and released. Late Sunday, administrators at both hospitals were still tallying the numbers of people in their care due to the storm.
Supervisors at both hospitals said their facilities had treated about a dozen people each - so far.
"All I know is that it has been busy, very busy," said Sue Herron, a supervisor at Community.
Many of the traffic accidents were due to people driving too fast for the conditions, and not slowing down when they see emergency vehicles and wreckers, McMeekin said.
"People need to pay more attention to what is going on around them," said Deputy Rob Taylor. "The road conditions especially can change fast, mile by mile."
Taylor said he encourages people to slow down and give themselves more time to get where they are going in the next couple of days when more snow is due to arrive.
Western Montana will be at the center of turbulent weather for awhile, according to the National Weather Service in Missoula.
"It's going to be a stormy week, with quite a few snow storms coming through," said meteorologist Eric Boldt.
An arctic cold front is expected to arrive east of Missoula on Monday, which will push temperatures into the teens and lower. But the front will waffle on Missoula's edge, and temperatures in the valley will remain in the mid-20s, he said.
If weather patterns hold their course, Boldt said, area mountains will likely receive 6 inches or more of snow every day through Friday. The Missoula Valley should see 1 to 3 inches daily.
"We could even have some problems with rain in the valleys later in the week," he said. "But the mountains will get a good dose of snow."
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at email@example.com.