A brief but intense snow squall created whiteout conditions Tuesday morning and is blamed for a series of crashes on Interstate 81 that involved 30 vehicles. The snowfall touched only a few miles of the interstate, but that was enough to cause hours of traffic headaches.
Northbound I-81 in Harrisonburg became a demolition derby around 9:00 Tuesday morning. State police say the sun returned 30 minutes after the first flakes began to fall but the aftermath forced the Virginia Department of Transportation to close a five-mile stretch of the interstate for 2.5 hours. Smashed vehicles - and parts of them - scattered a roughly one-mile stretch of Interstate 81 in Harrisonburg.
A quick-hitting band of snow dropped perhaps half an inch in half an hour.
First Sergeant Frank Pyanoe of the Virginia State Police said, "It just happened out of nowhere. And within minutes the road was slick and there was whiteout conditions where there was no visibility."
Once drivers started hitting their brakes one vehicle after another was caught up in the series of crashes. About 15 of them suffered major damage. Four tractor-trailers were part of the wreckage, and two had to be towed away.
A private contractor oversees maintenance and cleanup for this section of 81 but they expected only flurries and snow showers.
Sandy Myers of the VDOT Staunton District said, "That's not the type of forecast where we would go out and pre-treat the interstate. And in talking with some of the officials they said it was actually too cold to go out there and pre-treat."
VDOT and state police say drivers carry the burden of preventing these kinds of crashes.
Myers stated, "When you have a situation like this when the snow comes fast and hard the best defense is offense in that you need to drive defensively."
Pyanoe said, "Keep an eye on the weather that's ahead of you and you can see when there's a snow squall coming. Best thing you can do is probably get off the interstate and find a place to rest."
Police will not file any charges, but say drivers will have to settle with their insurance companies.
During the cleanup and police investigation, the interstate was shut down, and traffic diverted onto Route 11 through Harrisonburg. The resulting backups reached as far south as the Augusta County line.
Virginia State Police Press Release
Sudden snow squall results in multi-vehicle crash on I-81
CITY OF HARRISONBURG - The Virginia State Police along with the assistance of local emergency agencies are investigating a multi- vehicle crash in the northbound lanes of Interstate 81 in the area of the 243 mile marker in the City of Harrisonburg. At approximately 8:30 a.m. Tuesday (Jan. 3, 2012), a sudden snow squall came through the area which caused limited visibility and rapidly deteriorating road conditions. The crash is estimated to involve 20 vehicles which resulted in four injuries, with three minor in nature.
Northbound lanes of I-81 were re-opened by approximately 12:25 p.m. Tuesday.
Assisting emergency agencies on scene included the City of Harrisonburg Police Department, City of Harrisonburg Fire & Rescue, Rockingham County Sheriff's Office, Rockingham County Fire & Rescue and VDOT/DBI.
Sgt. Les Tyler Virginia State Police Culpeper Division PIO