The iceman cometh . . . and wreaketh havoc

December 27, 1993|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer Staff writers Andrea F. Siegel and Kerry O'Rourke contributed to this article.

It was a quiet Christmas night at the Towson Sheraton -- 69 rooms booked, just five more customers were expected to check in -- when supervisor Brenda Zimmerman sent the desk clerk home to enjoy the rest of the holiday.

Then it happened.

A skeleton staff found the lobby besieged by refugees from a storm -- hundreds of them, some with young children or elderly grandparents, looking for shelter from a blustery and dangerous night.

A burst of snow and a rapid drop in temperatures about 9 p.m. Saturday had coated roads with sheets of ice, sent cars skidding into each other and off the Baltimore Beltway and turned the gently curving hills of northern Baltimore County into white-knuckle adventures for motorists.

By midday yesterday, most major highways in the Baltimore area were clear and dry. Forecasts called for another chance of "light snow" early today.

But Christmas night, it was Holiday on Ice without the skaters, with people caught in miles-long lanes of bumper-to-bumper Baltimore Beltway traffic. Cars moved only sporadically -- and then not very far.

Police said 20 cars were damaged in a chain-reaction pile-up on Route 43 near Belair Road.

At Reisterstown and Greenspring Valley roads, between 20 and 30 cars were stranded between 9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Saturday as the ice hardened.

One driver with a cellular phone called Baltimore County authorities, who said salt trucks were on the way.

But there, and along Dulaney Valley Road where similar calls for help were made, the drivers stuck in traffic saw no sign of Public Works Department crews.

At 9 a.m. yesterday, close to 50 cars were still left parked on the shoulders or stuck in ditches along a northern stretch of the Beltway between Dulaney Valley Road and Park Heights Avenue.

"You probably had an inch of ice and an inch of snow. You couldn't go up hills no matter what you had -- four-wheel drive, whatever -- you couldn't go," said Baltimore County Police Officer Walter Cornett.

A man who lost control of his car driving north on Reisterstown Road managed to stop just south of Greenspring Valley Road. A woman walked up to him and complained: "You hit my car."

"I hit everybody's car," he replied.

One apparent traffic death was reported yesterday -- that of 37-year-old Sung Rae Chun, of the 1500 block of December Drive in Silver Spring, whose body was found in an overturned Honda about 12:30 p.m. in a creek off U.S. 29 in Silver Spring.

Montgomery County police were unable to say when the car ran off the road, or whether icy weather had been a factor.

National Weather Service forecaster Bob Melrose said a dusting of snow had been expected Saturday night, but the burst of heavier precipitation was a surprise. As much as an inch fell in 30 minutes in Baltimore's northern and western suburbs, with temperatures dropping to and below the freezing point. "It was fast," he said.

The late-night white Christmas amounted to 2 inches in Owings Mills, 1.3 inches in Parkton, an inch in Bel Air and at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and an inch or less in Baltimore.

In mountainous Western Maryland, Garrett County had the heaviest snow -- 10 to 12 inches by yesterday afternoon, state police said. In Allegany County, the Frostburg area had 3 to 4 inches, and Cumberland about 2 inches.

The dividing line between Allegany's light snow and Garrett's near-blizzard conditions, according to state police Cpl. Robert S. Farrell in Cumberland, is Big Savage Mountain.

"When you get to the top of that rascal," Corporal Farrell said, "it's a world of difference."

Heavier snow might have been welcome in the Baltimore area because it would have provided better traction for tires than the inch that fell, melted on roads and then froze in ice-rink thickness.

People on icy highways Saturday night and early yesterday were caught in a quandary -- whether to hang tough in the traffic, park, or bail out at an exit ramp and hope for shelter.

Close to 80 people found refuge overnight at the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Co. station, after being stranded at nearby shopping areas.

They were picked up by fire trucks and driven to the station, where firefighters brought in doughnuts and milk and brewed up extra coffee.

"They were cold, but they were thrilled," Firefighter Andy Seabolt said of the children in the crowd.

Towson's Sheraton was more comfortable -- particularly for those who managed by about 4 a.m. to reach the check-in desk and book the last of the establishment's 284 rooms at a bargain holiday rate of $59.

Overflow uses restaurant

More than 100 others were sprawled on couches, corridor floors and in chairs at the hotel's restaurant, which was not open. About 2 a.m., a hotel employee asked the crowd to leave the restaurant after some people wandered into the kitchen, apparently in search of refreshments.

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