Tough going

Blizzard left drivers stranded, kept tow truck drivers busy

Photo by Deb Gau While U.S. Highway 59 north of Marshall was mostly clear by Friday afternoon, some intersections with county roads were still on the snowy side. Drifting snow on Thursday stranded motorists and posed challenges for snowplow crews.

MARSHALL — Their job is helping people. But during blizzard conditions like the ones Thursday night, there’s a point where even the tow trucks can’t get to everyone who needs assistance.

During Thursday’s snowstorm, employees at Pulver Towing were called out to stranded vehicles in Lyon, Lincoln, Redwood and Yellow Medicine Counties, said Josh Schafer, operations manager for the Marshall division of Pulver. However, as driving conditions got worse, and the number of calls increased, things also got riskier for the towing crews and equipment.

Schafer said Pulver employees were focused on assisting law enforcement Thursday night with emergencies like vehicles blocking main roads. He said there were two calls where towing crews weren’t able to reach stranded motorists with their equipment until Friday morning.

“They were in their cars for several hours,” he said.

Lyon County Sheriff Eric Wallen said the Sheriff’s Department received around 10 calls for help for vehicles stuck in the snow on Thursday night. Five of the calls were in Marshall, but the remaining calls came from around the county.

“The wind was tough, and we had a lot of drifting snow,” Wallen said. In some cases, it was difficult for law enforcement to even get to stranded vehicles.

“We had one deputy call for a county snowplow to get to where people were stuck,” Wallen said.

Schafer and Wallen said it’s important for people to be aware of road conditions, and listen to weather warnings.

“It’s best to make arrangements not to go out in this stuff,” Schafer said. He recommended using the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s 511 travel information app to see what road conditions are like in your area, and whether roads are closed.

“If the Department of Transportation urges no travel, please heed that warning,” Wallen said. Motorists also need to be careful when there’s blowing snow on the roadway, he said.

“Don’t drive across snowdrifts, because you don’t know how deep they are, or how far they go,” he said. It’s easy to misjudge a drift and end up stuck.

It wasn’t just the Marshall area that faced risky driving conditions on Thursday. By Thursday night, the Minnesota Department of Transportation had issued no-travel advisories covering most of the western and southern edges of the state.

Things got bad enough in Renville County that the Minnesota National Guard was activated to rescue motorists stranded in their vehicles on Thursday night and early Friday morning. Gov. Tim Walz declared a peacetime state of emergency Thursday night, and ordered the National Guard to provide emergency assistance in Renville County.

In a news release, Renville County Sheriff Scott Hable said eight people were rescued and brought to the armory in Olivia. The National Guard used specialized tracked vehicles to reach the stranded motorists on roads that were “impassable” for other vehicles, Hable said.

Poor conditions led to many more stranded vehicles Thursday and early Friday. The Minnesota State Patrol reported 46 vehicles in the ditch, two jackknifed semis, and seven property damage crashes in southwest Minnesota.

The work was far from over for snowplow and towing crews on Friday. Schafer said Pulver employees were out picking up stuck vehicles, and providing jump-starts in the severe cold. Plow crews were also at work — and in some cases, trying to work around vehicles stuck and abandoned in snowdrifts.

Donald Scholten, highway maintenance superintendent for Lincoln County, said plow drivers had encountered some abandoned vehicles on the roads Friday.

“It’s a headache. It adds a lot of time to the route,” Scholten said.

Windy conditions Thursday and Friday also helped keep plow crews busy removing snowdrifts, he said. While this winter hasn’t topped the winter of 1996-97 in severity, Scholten said, Lincoln County plow drivers were putting in long hours this week.

While temperatures are expected to get back above zero over the next few days, the Marshall area isn’t clear of winter weather hazards. According to National Weather Service forecasts, there are more chances for light accumulations of snow coming on Sunday, as well as a potentially more significant storm on Monday and Tuesday.