The ice-covered hills of Rhome served as a frigid prison to hundreds of motorists this weekend.
Northbound and southbound ice-coated highways of U.S. 287 between Rhome and Tarrant County stranded several hundred drivers inside their vehicles over the weekend, including two Greyhound buses filled with travelers.
“We counted between 300 and 400 vehicles stuck out there on U.S. 287 between Texas 114 and the Tarrant County line,” said Wise County Fire Marshal Chuck Beard. “They started stacking up on Friday. There were 18-wheelers trying to make it up the hill, and they couldn’t. They just got stuck. Some of the drivers climbed back in their cab and went to sleep. It shut the roads down. Most of them got stranded Saturday, all the way through Saturday night and into Sunday.”
By Friday, the sleet that had fallen Thursday night had compacted on the roadways, making travel extremely difficult throughout the weekend. Travelers were stuck in their vehicles for more than 24 hours in some cases with no food or water as the temperatures at night fell into the low 20s. Drivers unfortunate enough to be behind the 18-wheelers were stranded.
“Tractor trailers got out on the road when they shouldn’t have and couldn’t get through,” said Rhome Police Chief James Rose. “They got stuck south of town near Ramhorn Hill Road, and a lot got stuck on the hill by Love’s.”
Beard and deputy fire marshal J.C. Travis worked with police, fire department volunteers, medics, sheriff’s deputies and game wardens trying to make sure people had enough fuel to keep their vehicles running and stay warm while they waited for Texas Department of Transportation crews to come in an shave ice off the roads.
The Red Cross opened a warming shelter at the Decatur Civic Center for stranded motorists, but emergency responders couldn’t get to the bulk of motorists to transport them to the shelter.
“They had to shelter in their cars,” Beard said. “We had so many people calling asking for food and water, but we couldn’t help them all. We were just able to respond to emergency calls.”
At times they had to help navigate ambulances to vehicles when stranded motorists suffered medical emergencies.
“One ambulance had to come treat a woman on one of the Greyhound buses who was having seizures,” Rose said. “Another time an ambulance got stuck in the ice and had to be towed out. They’re not made to navigate these conditions.”
Beard said the roads were covered with ice all over the county, but nowhere had a complete shutdown like the south section of U.S. 287.
Alvord Fire Chief Sam Hahn said traffic backed up on U.S. 287 in north Wise County, but it never became a parking lot like South Wise. They also dealt with a plethora of accidents near the truck stops in Alvord.
Relief finally came Sunday morning when TxDOT sent in its ice task force. The plows the local TxDOT offices had were not able to penetrate the ice, so the state agency brought in plows from Amarillo and Wichita Falls equipped with rows of teeth to puncture and break up the frozen surface. They arrived about 7 or 8 a.m. Monday morning to bust the ice and free the travelers from the frozen prison on the highway.
Beard said help from the state arrived late because the problem was so widespread.
“We weren’t the only area being affected,” he said. “It wasn’t for lack of trying. We just don’t have the resources on hand.”
“TxDOT did all they could,” echoed Rose. “They did a good job. But who can be prepared for something like this when it only happens once every 20 years?”
Beard said the state will evaluate TxDOT’s response to see if any changes need to be made in case of future incidents like this. But it was the worst case of freezeover many can remember seeing in this area of North Texas. Amazingly, there were no serious injuries or illnesses reported among the stranded motorists in the arctic conditions.
Throughout all of this, the sheriff’s office dispatchers were getting flooded with calls from stranded motorists, accidents and ice-related injuries.
“Our dispatchers did an excellent job,” said Sheriff David Walker. “We had some extra people come in to help, but it was still overwhelming.”
The onslaught of 911 calls kept firefighters, medics, sheriff’s deputies, police and dispatchers working non-stop throughout the weekend. Between Friday night and Tuesday morning, 68 accidents had been reported along with 118 stranded motorists.