State Police reopen I-39 after a snowy 100-car pileup
Illinois State Police said traffic in both directions of Interstate 39 between Normal and Minonk have reopened, close to 24 hours after a crash involving several dozen vehicles on snowy and ice roads turned into a 100-car pileup.
The first crashes happened around 3:15 p.m. on southbound I-39 just south of El Paso, authorities said. The crash scene was several hundred yards long. In all, 28 vehicles sustained damage, with numerous others sliding off the road. There were no injuries.
State Police called in 12 tow trucks to help clear the scene. That work was expected to last well into Friday.
ISP issued a statement Friday indicating the southbound lanes reopened at about 1:30 p.m. and the northbound lanes opened at 11:56 a.m.
“Together, with our local partners, we are diligently working to ensure motorists are safely escorted from the area to warming centers,” State Police said just before 7 p.m. “The ISP continues to urge the public to use EXTREME caution and only travel if absolutely necessary. Interstate 39 southbound will be closed for approximately 12 hours.”
Matt Hoffman, a truck driver from St. Louis, was southbound on I-39 when he heard a commotion on his CB radio. Some northbound truckers were shouting about a pileup starting.
“If it wasn’t for my CB radio, I would’ve plowed right into them,” Hoffman told WGLT.
Hoffman hit the brakes. He jack-knifed.
“I watched all them guys behind me pile up. I thought they were going to hit me,” he said. Ultimately, his rig escaped any damage. He watched as a school bus took people to a nearby warming center. He opened up his rig to keep other stranded drivers warm.
Speaking to WGLT around 6:30 p.m., Hoffman said he hoped to break free of the pileup and make it to a Pilot truck stop and call it a night. He’s headed home to St. Louis next.
Hoffman added: “For all those truck drivers out there, keep your CB radios on. That is a very important aspect of driving. If it wasn’t for my CB radio, it would have been a disaster.”
The El Paso-Gridley school district loaned out that bus to help transport people away from the pileup site, chaperoned by a snowplow from El Paso Township. By around 6:30 p.m., all motorists had been moved to warming centers.
The City of El Paso and the El Paso Police Department were working with the State Police and the Red Cross to care for those involved in the pileup. Shelters were being made at the El Paso Library and the City Municipal Building.
Other driving problems
The McLean County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) said many areas are dealing with whiteout conditions as another winter storm dumped sleet and snow across central Illinois on Thursday.
“There are multiple accidents on our interstates. ISP has closed several sections of highway due to accidents and lanes being blocked. PLEASE stay home!” states a message on the McLean County EMA Facebook page.
EMA acting director Cathy Beck told WGLT several portions of Interstates 55 and 74 in McLean are at a standstill because of those accidents.
ISP said travel on I-74 between the Mansfield area and Champaign (mile markers 160 to 180) should be “for emergency purposes only.”
“Numerous crashes and whiteout conditions are making travel extremely dangerous if not impossible,” said ISU Sgt. Matt McCormick.
According to the Normal Fire Department, I-74 was closed near LeRoy and I-55 has a major crash near Towanda.
By early Thursday afternoon, roads in McLean County were snow covered over a layer of ice.
"We would recommend people stay home if at all possible," said Ryan Otto, Town of Normal Public works director. "The streets are very slick. The ice and sleet that came down beforehand has created a slick surface underneath the snow."
Otto said the town has close to 30 snowplows, salt trucks and other vehicles treating the roads. He said that started with salting the streets by mid-morning, adding he anticipates town crews will be plowing throughout the night and likely into Friday morning.
"It is an all-hands-on-deck type of snow," he said, adding he's concerned about the potential for blizzard conditions when winds increase.
Bloomington Public Works Director Kevin Kothe said it will likely take hours before the snow lets up so crews can get their plows onto neighborhood streets.
“We are just working hard to keep the main roads open and passable. As long as the snow is coming down and the winds are blowing the way they are, we will be fighting that battle for a while,” Kothe said.
He urges vehicle owners to observe the city's parking ban so plows can get through. “It just makes it so much easier for our operators to be able to clear streets effectively,” said Kothe, noting the city can get a vehicle towed if it needs to.
According to the National Weather Service, Normal received 9.5 inches of snow on Thursday and one location in Bloomington recorded 7.5 inches. Other parts of the county were generally in the range of 7-9 inches, while Hudson indicated 5.5 inches.
Alex Erwin is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lincoln. He said previous forecasts saw the storm hitting more to the northwest, closer to the Peoria area, but it shifted south. And that meant Bloomington-Normal would see the heaviest snowfall in the region throughout the day.
Snowfall tapered off on Thursday evening, enabling road crews to make progress in plowing residential areas.
The Friday morning commute could look better as long as road crews were able to work through the night, Erwin said.