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ST. GEORGE — For seven hours, Ashlee Braun's car was stuck on the freeway in below freezing temperatures.
"We had like half a tank (of gas), so we had to turn it on for 10, 15 minutes then turn it off and wait an hour before it started getting cold again and turn it back on," Braun said Sunday.
She was in one of an estimated 300 vehicles stranded on I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge along the Arizona Strip late Saturday night through Sunday morning in a rare snowstorm that brought traffic to a standstill because of snow-covered roads and icy bridges.
Motorists were caught by surprise by a cold, heavy storm system. Arizona Highway Patrol troopers closed both northbound and southbound I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge just before midnight Saturday, from milepost 26 (three miles from the Utah state line) to milepost 8 (eight miles from Nevada), according to Tom Herrmann, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Many Utahns traveling back from a weekend in Las Vegas found themselves trapped in the Gorge.
Braun was headed home to New Harmony, Washington County, after spending the weekend at the National Finals Rodeo in Vegas. She got into the Gorge and was about 10 miles from St. George when all traffic stopped.
"About halfway through, we came up on a bunch of vehicles and we were stopped in the same spot for only two and a half hours. Then we probably moved, I don't know, a quarter of a mile maybe, then we were stopped for another seven hours," she said.
"There was no plows or service vehicles or anything. We saw one service vehicle throughout the night. We just kind of felt like nobody was doing anything."
Braun's group had no food. She said a person on a four-wheel ATV drove by in the morning telling them that officials were going to try and turn them around. But Braun said it wasn't until the driver in front of her got out of his car and started organizing with the other drivers that they finally got everyone turned around.
Braun drove back toward Nevada, out of the Gorge, and got home using Old Highway 91 over Utah Hill.
About halfway through, we came up on a bunch of vehicles and we were stopped in the same spot for only two and a half hours. Then we probably moved, I don't know, a quarter of a mile maybe, then we were stopped for another seven hours. There was no plows or service vehicles or anything. We saw one service vehicle throughout the night. We just kind of felt like nobody was doing anything.
The northbound lanes of I-15 didn't reopen until just after noon on Sunday. The southbound lanes opened about 12:30 p.m., Herrmann said.
"What we had was a chain reaction crash situation that was helped by semitrailer rigs jackknifing...and then vehicles either striking those trucks or being trapped in between all those trucks as they slid off the road or were blocking the highway," said Bart Graves, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
It was a slow process to unblock the two lanes and get traffic moving through the narrow road, which is walled by rocks on both sides. Graves said it can take "hours and hours" to unblock a 300-vehicle shutdown.
The Arizona Highway Patrol and Washington County search and rescue crews worked to provide gas, blankets and water to some of the trapped motorists, which included a few school buses.
There was only one medical emergency during the night, according to Graves. A man suffering from a heart problem was located by a trooper and was taken in his patrol car to another emergency vehicle.
Stacie Lawrence's 16-year-old daughter Clarissa was on a bus with her East High School cross country team coming back from a championship event in California. Lawrence's husband went as a chaperone and her son in junior high also went to run.
She said she was anxious about them making the drive back because she knew about the snowstorm. Her husband sent her a text message around 8 p.m. and said they were just outside of Mesquite.
"At 2:24 a.m. I texted him and just said that I'd been called and we knew what was going on on the bus and that they were stuck and that we'd been able to contact almost all the parents," she said. "(At) 6:07 a.m. I get a text from him and he says, 'We've been stuck outside of St. George due to the storm. Sorry for the delay. Go to bed.'"
He said the roads were very icy but everyone was doing great and slept for a good part of the night. The bus idled all night long so they were able to stay warm. Due to regulations requiring the bus driver to rest for eight hours, the bus was expected to return to Salt Lake City around 10 p.m. Sunday
"I'm sure it'll be nice to just show up and give them a hug and be glad they're home," Lawrence said.
Some areas of St. George received a rare 6 to 8 inches of snow Saturday night, according to city spokesman Marc Mortensen. He said it was particularly bad from about 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. when the snowfall came down heavily and temperatures fell.
Public safety officials were "extremely busy" Saturday night attending to a lot of accidents, mostly slide-offs that caused property damage.
The SunTran bus system was closed last night due to poor driving conditions, and after receiving 3 inches of snow, the St. George Municipal Airport was closed at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
"Crews worked around the clock at the airport with the plow to clear the runway and taxiways, and this morning it's back open, and we don't foresee any other problems at the airport," Mortensen said Sunday.
St. George has no snow plows expect for one at the airport that the city is required to have.
"City crews this morning attacked the problem with graders. We contacted some of our local contractors here that have the large blades, and we’ve been able to work on some of the hills" removing snow, Mortensen said.
He said city street conditions improved as the day progressed Sunday as crews sanded and cleared the streets using construction equipment, like front-end loaders and graders.
Contributing: Pat Reavy