Blizzard offered safety reminder

BLUE EARTH – Minnesotans are a tough lot and think they can plow through most anything, including nasty weather conditions.

They figure it’s their own hides they’re risking, and if they wind up in a ditch or snowdrift while driving, they can take it.

But the public’s safety is the business of law enforcement, says Mike Gormley, Faribault County Sheriff. When motorists are stranded, it’s crews like his that risk their lives to bring the travelers back alive.

He recalled a fierce storm last month.

“Approximately 12 semis and 17 motorists [stranded],” he said. “That’s a lot, when you figure that many vehicles stuck in our county.”

When the 911 calls start coming in, from motorists or passersby, Gormley’s deputies go into action.

“We’ll try to go out and get them if we can,” he said. “If we can’t, [the dispatcher] will call them every 15 minutes.”

One reason for the quarter-hour calls is to give motorists advice, such as running their engines a few minutes every hour to keep warm or to make sure the tailpipe is clear. The other reason is to make sure the people in the vehicle keep responding.

“A lot of the cars were multiple people,” said Chief Deputy Scott Adams.

He and deputies Shane Dulac and Jason Christenson were monitoring the situation.

“We’d been making short rescues, a couple miles from town,” Adams said.

Around 11 p.m., the dispatcher alerted deputies that there had been no contact for about 30 minutes from a woman stranded near the Frost exit on Highway 254.

“At that point, it appeared to be a life and death-type situation,” Adams said.

“You assume the worst,” Gormley said.

Adams went out, leaving other deputies behind in case they were needed to rescue others.

“The roads were passable,” with few drifts, he said. “Visibility was so poor.”

He was running his lights to make his cruiser easier for others to see.

On Adams way east along I-90, he checked on some semi drivers and three women who wanted to stay with their car. He also saw 12 to 15 semis still on the road, but traveling slowly.

Adams too was driving slowly.

“At times, I was just going one or two miles an hour,” he said. “I’d creep it up to 10 or 15.”

About eight miles out of Blue Earth, he came across a black Durango, which was what the unresponsive woman had been driving.

“Snow had blown in around her vehicle about thigh deep,” Adams said, measuring it high up on his own leg.

He shined a flashlight into the vehicle.

“She sat up, disoriented, confused, and didn’t know the phone had been ringing,” Adams said. “Said she was tired.

“I asked her if she’d like to come back to Blue Earth because the wreckers weren’t going out,” Adams said. “At that point, I gave her a ride back to Blue Earth. My round trip was approximately three hours.”

His advice about traveling in storms is short.

“Stay home,” Adams said.

Not only are people risking their own lives, but the lives of other drivers, passengers and first responders such as officers, fire personnel and ambulance crew members, he said. It also creates headaches for snowplow drivers.

“It causes problems for the next day when wreckers are pulling cars out of the ditch,” Adams said. “By the time (the plows) go around them, it leaves snow on the road. They have to go back and clean it up later.”

“A lot of people call in, ask ‘Is it safe to drive?'” Gormley said. “If you have to ask, you probably shouldn’t be driving.”

People tend to think that if conditions are too bad to be on the road, the officers will close the roads, but that’s not how it works, Gormley said.

Usually, only the larger, higher-traffic roads, like Interstate 90, have physical barricades and the local officers can’t operate them.

“We aren’t involved in it at all. The Department of Transportation is the one that makes the decision,” Gormley said. “Somebody has to physically come out and shut the gates; they’re padlocked.”

Some of the gates are actually on the ramps to prevent motorists from getting on the interstate, but that doesn’t stop those who are already traveling the big road.

“They’ll keep going as far as they can until they can’t,” Gormley said.

Adams said law officers will meet with Department of Transporation officials on April 14 to discuss road closures and other aspects of winter weather to better serve the public and keep first responders safe.