LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Motorists spent all of a night and much of a day struggling to get off an Arkansas interstate after tractor-trailer rigs jackknifed in succession. So much traffic backed up that none of the few snow plows the state operators could clear a route to anyplace warm.
Misty Platt of Bryant was driving Sunday night with her husband, 16-year-old daughter and the daughter's friend when the highway conditions became a challenge near Arkadelphia. They pulled off Interstate 30 eastbound for a break and heard on the radio that there was an accident ahead but it was being cleared.
"Didn't happen," Platt said.
"We got back on the freeway at Arkadelphia at 10:15 p.m. and got stopped about two miles up," Platt said. "We didn't move again until about 12:15 p.m. today (Monday)."
Normally the 51-mile drive between Arkadelphia and Bryant takes no more than an hour.
The National Weather Service had predicted the storm several days in advance and, as the wintery weather developed, state police and highway officials warned of dangerous conditions.
But there seemed to be little that would prepare motorists for a traffic jam like this.
State police spokesman Bill Sadler explained that as soon as one accident would be cleared, traffic would creep forward and another big rig would jackknife or some other accident would occur.
Police would have to get drivers to back up so wreckers could clear the disabled vehicles. Then traffic would creep forward. Then the process would repeat itself. It happened a dozen or more times, Sadler said.
And there were periods when traffic was stopped in both directions, making it all but impossible to reach accidents.
Platt said that by 8 a.m. people started venturing outside their vehicles, trying to make sense of what was happening.
"An elderly lady with heart problems was there and she needed to get out and move around," Platt said.
She said the woman's daughter asked for help in keeping her mother warm.
The solution? Build a fire.
"I never thought in my life that I'd be building a bonfire along the highway," Platt said.
The fire burned for a couple of hours and brought more people out of their cars. A number of folks helped forage for wood.
"That's a good experience to take away from it. I met some really nice people," Platt said.
But overall, Platt said she couldn't help feeling frustrated.
"I'm more disappointed that the state wasn't better able to handle something they had so much notice for," she said.
Megan Kik and her fiance, Chris Marsman, were also caught for 14 hours while on the road heading from Houston to Grand Rapids, Mich., They traveled with their 2-year-old daughter, 5-month-old twins and two dogs.
"I'm not used to this lack of response from emergency personnel and road crews, since I live in the North," Kik told the Saline Courier newspaper. "But this is just awful and life-threatening. There is a huge lack of emergency personnel in general; I would expect to have seen a few more cops out here — even state police or local police, but we haven't seen any this whole time."
Kik spoke to the paper while still stalled on the highway. Platt is a freelance photographer for the newspaper.
Like Platt, Kik said her fellow stuck motorists proved to be nice people.
"Some truckers stopped to check on us when they saw my 2-year-old playing in the snow with one of the dogs," she said. "They just wanted to make sure we had food and water, so that was really nice, Kik said. "Generally people are being friendly out here, I have seen people go up to windows to share information and check on each other. The way I found out about the highway being shut down and National Guard being called out was from the drivers in front of us in a pickup truck."
The guard sent 25 soldiers and 10 Humvees to help get water and fuel to people.
Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Randy Ort said that it was impossible to plow or treat I-30 with so much traffic stalled.
Ort said it is a good idea to heed warnings of dangerous travel conditions and stay home if possible. But he didn't blame the drivers for the traffic problems.
"It's not that people generally are traveling too fast for conditions. Those 18-wheelers, once they are stopped, they simply can't get going again," Ort said.
Sadler said state police in Little Rock and Saline County sent every available trooper to I-30, even those with administrative jobs and crews from the agency's aircraft division, to help clear the wrecks.
Aside from making the highways slick, the storm wasn't as bad as it might have been.
The state has seen terrible ice storms over the past dozen years or so, one in north Arkansas in January 2009 and back-to-back storms in central Arkansas in December 2000, which left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity, some for weeks.
"It could have been worse," Platt said. "We all walked away without being in a wreck."
And she had electricity when she got home.
"A shower never felt so good," Platt said.