Ice storm strands truck drivers, travelers in Ellensburg

January 19, 2017 GMT

Wednesday’s ice storm stranded buses, semi trucks and travelers in Ellensburg as they waited for Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass to open.

Phil Thompson, a semi driver for TWT of Spokane, said this is the first time he’s gotten stuck this year.

“This is the worst driving year I can remember for quite a while,” Thompson said.

The Washington State Department of Transportation shut down I-90 between Ellensburg and North Bend on Tuesday night, with plans to re-assess the situation on Snoqualmie Pass on Thursday morning. Ellensburg hotels and restaurants were busy with truckers and travelers stranded by the storm.

“Our rooms are almost completely full,” said Tim Sori, front office manager for the Best Western in Ellensburg.

The winter is usually the slow season for hotels in Ellensburg, Sori said. When Snoqualmie Pass closes, though, rooms are filled. It is usually a combination of people already here who extend their stay or those who get trapped after traveling over the mountain.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Flying J truck stop in Ellensburg was filled with truck drivers eating lunch, drinking coffee and waiting for the pass to open Wednesday afternoon.

Thompson said he came out of Spokane Tuesday night and stopped at the Tokio Weigh Station in Ritzville because the highway was a solid sheet of ice. His truck jackknifed at one point when he was changing lanes to avoid a car and another semi truck stuck in the ditch. The passengers of the car had gotten out and were standing in the road in his lane.

“I got into the left lane to miss them and then I couldn’t steer,” he said. He pulled over at that point and stayed put for 10 hours before heading to Ellensburg. The last time he came across Snoqualmie Pass, it was a mess as well.

Thompson has fellow drivers who were stuck in Portland. The entire country is having a rough winter, he said.

“It doesn’t matter where you go, the Rockies are getting hammered, the East Coast is getting hammered,” he said.

A lot of drivers’ pocketbooks are suffering because of road conditions, Thompson said. Everyone has to slow down due to the weather. He’s been late for every single delivery the last few weeks.

“I lose money when my wheels aren’t turning. I’m paid by the mile,” he said.

Thompson was waiting to hear from his dispatch if he can be rerouted through White Pass. The road looks clear through White Pass, which is unusual for this time of year.

“I think White Pass is kind of sketchy in the summer,” he said.

The best way to handle winter driving is to take it slow and easy, Thompson said. A semi handles pretty well in the snow, because of the weight. But he sees people doing 60 in the snow and then he finds them further up the road turned over.

“I think that’s the worst thing is people who just throw caution to the wind and go for it,” he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Every five years or so Washington gets hammered like this, Thompson said. “It’s weather. There’s nothing you can really do about it, but I’d sure like to be in California right now,” he said.

Preston Bush, a truck driver from Belgrade, Mont., drove from Spokane to Moses Lake and then Ellensburg Tuesday night. He’s hauling minerals to Seattle.

By the time he hit Moses Lake the road was a skating rink. He slid a couple of times, but was able to straighten out his trailer. It took him three hours to get from Spokane to Moses Lake and 2 1/2 hours to get to Ellensburg.

Bush slept in the cab of his truck with his pit bull in Ellensburg. Altogether it hasn’t been a rough winter, he said, and this is the first time he has been stuck. The roads in Montana have been clear, but they almost never shut them down, unlike Washington.

“It’s a cowboy state over there,” he said.

Russ Katzenberger, an owner operator of a semi truck for RTI out of Kansas City, Missouri, pulled in to Ellensburg Tuesday afternoon, so he missed all the ice and snow. The entire northern half of America is covered in snow, he said.

“North is winter,” he said.

The winters are getting rougher and storms are getting bigger, he said. A few of Katzenberger’s friends have gotten into collisions trying to head north on Highway 97.

“Weather patterns are changing, I can tell you that much, regardless of what people believe,” Katzenberger said.

It takes experience and common sense to drive a semi, he said. Some of the younger drivers don’t know any better and their companies try to pressure them into driving in bad conditions, he said.

“It’s not worth your life,” he said.