Snow and downed trees made for a treacherous Sunday night for drivers crossing Stevens Pass on Highway 2. The rough conditions and highway closures in the area stretched into Tuesday, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
WSDOT closed a stretch of Highway 2 near Stevens Pass overnight Sunday, leaving some drivers stranded near Skykomish. Just before 9 p.m., WSDOT posted online that it was no longer safe for crews to clear an area between Gold Bar and Skykomish and suggested travelers stuck near Skykomish could “make arrangements” to wait there or head back east toward Leavenworth.
By Monday afternoon, crews were still assessing road conditions, said WSDOT spokesman Bart Treece. Highway 2 was closed in both directions between Gold Bar (at milepost 32) and the summit (at milepost 64).
The State Patrol on Monday escorted convoys of drivers — one with about 100 vehicles — out of the area, Washington State Patrol spokeswoman Trooper Heather Axtman said. “We needed to get them off the pass,” Axtman said. “From our understanding, people were running out of fuel, running out of water, running out of food.”
Conditions remained hazardous, but “it was a risk we were willing to take to make sure they got off the pass,” she said.
Drivers described seeing falling trees and having difficulty getting official updates because of spotty cell service. Some skiers were stuck at Stevens Pass resort, which offered drivers fuel and bunk beds in lodges on-site, said spokeswoman Jennifer Smith.
Axtman, from the State Patrol, was not aware of any injuries Monday. A tree fell and severely damaged at least one vehicle in the area, but the occupants were OK, she said.
Falling trees can be deadly, Treece said. “It is extremely dangerous,” he said. “We don’t want to exacerbate a dangerous situation.”
A tree-fall on Highway 2 killed two people in a vehicle in 2012, when WSDOT had not closed the highway despite reports of trees falling in the area. WSDOT workers have also been killed by falling trees. The state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) fined WSDOT $22,000 in 2011 after a worker was killed by a falling tree.
Under an agreement with L&I, WSDOT does not cut down trees in the dark except in limited cases, said WSDOT Maintenance and Operations Manager Chris Johnson. “We take the safety of our workers very seriously,” Johnson said.
For locals in Skykomish, the closure followed power outages throughout town. Blaine Brown, owner of the Whistling Post Saloon, used a generator to keep his bar open until about 11 p.m. Sunday and estimated as many as 90 people inside the business at one point. Some Skykomish residents opened their homes to stranded drivers, Brown said.
Outside, tempers flared among some stressed travelers, but inside the bar, “everyone was pretty calm,” Brown said. While most drivers were able to leave town Monday, locals remain without power and without access out of town, Brown said.
“Two days without power, almost 24 hours without access getting to the grocery store or gas,” he said. “It’s kind of hectic for everybody.”
Among the group of vehicles stranded Monday were three 56-passenger buses from Starline Luxury Coaches carrying about 130 passengers on a ski trip, said Starline Chief Operating Officer Richard Vollmer. Vollmer wasn’t sure who the passengers were, but Axtman said the buses were full of middle school students who stayed on the buses overnight.
The charter buses are equipped with restrooms and TVs, Vollmer said, and the company checked in with bus drivers throughout the night.
“They were all in good spirits,” Vollmer said.
Treece said crews were working to remove trees and it was “nearly impossible for us to be able to go out and knock on windows” of all the waiting drivers. WSDOT encourages drivers to have emergency supplies like water, food, blankets and battery packs for charging cell phones.
“It was a long night for a lot of folks,” Treece said.