Drivers stuck on icy I-35 as cold blast hits Texas

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Associated Press

Posted on December 8, 2013 at 10:02 AM

DALLAS (AP) — As Tina Pacheco, her husband and two friends traveled into Texas on their way to Mexico, the ice-laden Interstate 35 soon became so treacherous that traffic came to a standstill, and they ended up spending the night in their pickup truck.

They parked on a service road and kept the truck running for heat. "We couldn't go anywhere," Pacheco, 38, said Saturday as she and her traveling party slowly made their way south again. "It's a good thing we had gas."

Bitter cold temperatures settled in throughout North Texas on Saturday, after sleet, snow and ice pummeled the area Thursday night and Friday, turning many roads into a giant ice sheet, forcing airlines to cancel hundreds of flights and cities to curtail everything from football games and holiday parades to the Dallas Marathon.

One of the worst-hit areas was Interstate 35 north of Dallas, where hundreds of motorists had to sleep in their vehicles or take refuge in nearby shelters after the highway was shut down for hours at a time beginning Friday morning. Highway crews had a tough time keeping up with the stalled vehicles and tractor-trailers stuck in the snow and ice.

"We removed five or six trucks, and it would happen again," Jody Gonzalez, chief of Denton County Emergency Services, said Saturday, adding that in some places, motorists had to drive in rutted, 4-inch-thick ice.

By Saturday afternoon, traffic was moving once again, but slowly.

"They are barely inching by," said Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Donna Huerta. She warned motorists not to travel in the area. "You could be stuck behind an unexpected accident for hours," she said.

North Texas was not expected to get much relief from the bitter cold soon. Temperatures reached only into the mid-20s Saturday and were expected only to rise above freezing for a couple of hours Sunday, though the sun was expected to peek out for a bit as well. The transportation department called in additional road graders and sand and salt trucks.

"We are not putting down our guard at all," Huerta said. "Until we actually see some changing in the conditions then were not going to slow down."

Erin Claiborne and her family planned to spend their second night in a shelter in Sanger, about 50 miles north of Dallas, on Saturday after taking refuge there Friday night. She, her husband and 14-year-old daughter were heading from their home in Bartlesville, Okla., to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for a trip to Orlando, Fla., when Interstate 35 deteriorated to one slippery lane of ice.

"Semis were on the side of the road, some in ditches, some upside down, some just abandoned," she said Saturday.

Traffic crawled, then stopped for hours, she said.

"That's kind of when we decided we better not go any further," she said. "At that point, we were stopped for a couple of hours. We decided it was just best to stay."

Across Texas, at least four drivers died in weather-related accidents.

In West Texas, a pileup of 10 vehicles on Interstate 10 caused by icy conditions closed a portion of the highway Saturday about 160 miles east of El Paso and claimed the life of at least one.

A driver in Arlington, about 20 miles west of Dallas, was killed Friday when his car slammed into a truck. And a spokeswoman with the Denton County Sheriff's Office said one person died Saturday after a pickup truck went off of an icy Interstate 35 bridge and into Lake Lewisville.

A West Texas man was killed in an accident caused by slick road conditions Thursday.

Oncor utility crews were working to restore power in the Dallas-Fort Worth area after ice-laden tree limbs fell and downed power lines. A spokeswoman said Saturday evening that about 75,000 people in the area were without power, down from a peak of more than 270,000. She said all power was expected to be restored by late Sunday night.

At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport's Terminal D, a few dozen people were sleeping on cots and many others were anxiously waiting for flights out on Saturday night or Sunday morning. Airport staff served free coffee, cookies and sandwiches.

Airlines cancelled more than 400 flights Saturday, about 50 percent of the usual departure schedule. The airport said some cargo and passenger planes departed Saturday. Two runways were open, and crews were working to clear more.

Narasimhan Rangarajan had come from halfway across the world — Chennai, India — to see his brother in Salt Lake City, Utah. He laughed that his vacation had been "not so good so far."

He hoped his flight Saturday night to Salt Lake City would take off. Next to his cot, a friend who had traveled with him from India had his arm over his head, trying to sleep.

Joel Dutton, 26, was on his way home to Huntsville, Ala., from Dubai after completing a yearlong Christian mission trip. A canceled flight meant he was going to have to sleep on a cot until Sunday morning.

"I'm used to traveling and backpacking, so it wouldn't be my first time staying in an airport," Dutton said.

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Associated Press reporters Nomaan Merchant in Dallas and Michael Graczyk in Houston contributed to this report.

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