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January 8, 2014

ARCTIC BLAST 2014: Ice road truckers

Winter storm, ice, cold temps and interstate closures force over-the-road drivers off the road

TERRE HAUTE — Semis and ice don’t mix.

Icy road conditions caused several semitrailers to jackknife, closing Interstate 70 near Indiana 46 Tuesday evening and forcing truckers to search for a spot to park their rigs.

“The interstate was closed in that area [Tuesday night] three times for three different jackknifed semis,” Indiana State Police Sgt. Joe Watts said on Wednesday.

As midnight passed into early Wednesday morning, trucks began lining the entranceway to Sycamore Terrace on Terre Haute’s east side. The shopping area contains a Super Walmart, just north of the interstate. The retailers’ expansive parking area filled with more than 100 semis, and by 7 a.m., a variety of other trucks, including tandem trucks used to restore electrical power lines, covered the parking area.

“It took me eight hours to travel 59 miles” on Monday from Effingham, Ill., and “we went just 17 miles” on Tuesday, said Kevin Walker, 53, of Kansas City, Mo. Walker said he has 22 years of experience driving semis.

“A lot of trucks froze up,” he said. “We got jelled up [fuel] and went over to the Kenworth dealer [near the Terre Haute International Airport]. We were there about four hours trying to get our fuel lines unclogged,” Walker said.

Rick Broadbent, a driver for JED Express of South Mountain, Ontario, was hauling a load to Dallas, Texas, when he pulled into the Terre Haute lot Tuesday evening. “It is as bad as I have seen it because of the ice. There doesn’t appear to be any salt or sand down here,” he said Wednesday morning. “It was like trying to hold a greased pig on the road Tuesday, and I was only driving 15 miles an hour.”

George Fulk, 38, co-owner of Poor Boy’s Towing and owner of Wabash Valley Towing, knows all about the problems of semis sliding off the interstate.

“I’ve been out here for 72 hours almost. I’ve had six hours of sleep in 72 hours,” Fulk said at about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

“It’s unbelievable. It is pure ice on I-70. We worked 15 jackknifed semis in the last three days and I got five semis on I-70 that I have still have to get to,” Fulk said. “We’re running about 10 hours behind on work right now. We can’t catch up. I turned down over 150 calls” for assistance since Tuesday evening, Fulk said.

“I’m probably going to Vegas when this over,” Fulk chuckled. “I will make a bunch of money [from the numerous towing jobs], but I have been planning a trip anyway, and this looks like a good time to go.”

On Wednesday morning, Walker and fellow driver Crystal Gamble spread kitty litter under tires to help their semi gain traction to get out of the Walmart parking lot. The two were hauling 48,000 pounds of a steel hardener bound for Pittsburgh, Pa. The load had been scheduled to arrive Jan. 6.

“These super truckers need to slow down. That is 90 percent of the problem out there,” Gamble said. “We call them that because they drive in this weather like it is sunny and we’re in Florida.”

The two departed from Kansas City, Mo., at 10 a.m. Sunday, and at 10 a.m. Wednesday, the two worked to leave the Terre Haute Walmart lot. “That’s just 330 miles in three days,” Walker said.

Temperatures on Wednesday morning reached near 20 degrees, a far cry from sub-zero temperatures on Monday and Tuesday.

“Get out the sun tan lotion, it’s warming up,” Walker said just prior to departing the parking lot.

On the opposite side of the shopping center, Jure Susac of Davenport, Iowa, sat in the warmth of his truck’s cab, waiting for other truckers to begin moving out. “I was in Texas over the weekend and it was cold there too,” Susac said. “The interstate at Exit 11 [at 1-70 and Indiana 46] was closed about 3 a.m.”

Susac was hauling dog food bound for Oxford, Mich. “I still have 395 miles to go,” he said. “The bad ice started along Interstate 57, near Mount Vernon in Illinois. I am not in a big hurry. I have rescheduled the load delivery. All of us want to make it through safe,” Susac said.

Rayford Grice, a driver from Hayti, Mo., was diverted off of I-70 about 4 a.m. Grice said Terre Haute was the first place he could find to get off the interstate. “All the way from Mount Vernon, Ill., to Terre Haute, trucks were parked along side the road,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Grice, who has driven trucks for 35 years.

Jim Huntsman, 31, has been driving for three years. He pulled into the Walmart parking lot just after 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. “From Effingham to Terre Haute, it was just a big sheet of ice,” he said. “I am weighing about 79,000 pounds hauling steel bars and I’m not getting any traction,” Huntsman said. “There’s more semis off the road than I’ve ever seen. The biggest problem is nobody wants to slow down. I was driving and getting passed like I was parked,” he said.

About 9:30 a.m., Huntsman stepped from his cab and tightened a tarp on his flat-bed trailer just before departing for his trip to Brimfield, Ohio. And then several other trucks also began departing the parking area — heading out to see how far they could get next.

 Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.

 

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