Coating of ice bedevils drivers

Hundreds of crashes reported during morning commute

Man killed in Sykesville

January 10, 2002|By Laura Vozzella and Gerard Shields | Laura Vozzella and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Just a few drops of rain, which created a chaotic morning rush hour yesterday, caused hundreds of accidents, at least one of them fatal, stranded children on school buses, spun cars 360 degrees on glazed highways and forced police to walk to fender-benders because roads were too slick for cruisers.

The icy morning surprised and infuriated commuters, who cursed bad weather forecasts and bad drivers alike. But forecasters who'd predicted a partly sunny and mild day argued they weren't that far off the mark.

Less than 1/100th of an inch of rain -- a mist that meteorologists called too minuscule to predict more than a few hours in advance -- fell across Maryland and Washington.

It just happened to descend at a time when temperatures were right at or below freezing, at the start of the morning rush hour, on some of the most congested commuter arteries in the nation.

"With all the weather forecasting and radar, Mother Nature just showed us who's in charge," said Pikesville Middle School Principal Barbara E. Walker, whose 2.2-mile commute took 30 minutes yesterday.

The sprinkling began about 6:30 a.m. and quickly turned to ice as it hit area roads and bridges. The result was hundreds of accidents and disruptions to all facets of everyday life -- from the delivery of babies to the administration of criminal justice.

A Sykesville pedestrian, Gary P. Haines, 47, was killed by a skidding car about 8:20 a.m. as he tried to warn oncoming traffic of another accident on Macbeth Way, police said.

In Montgomery County, police are investigating if weather played a role in the death of 15-year-old Alicia Allen of Germantown. The Northwest High School student was struck and killed by a car about 7 a.m. as she tried to walk across Great Seneca Highway.

In Baltimore County, police shut down Interstate 795 at I-695 until salt trucks could arrive. Dispatchers were swamped with 700 calls in 3 1/2 hours, 275 of them in a 30-minute stretch. Among the accidents: A tractor-trailer jackknifed on Interstate 83, north of the Shawan Road exit; and a car knocked over a fire hydrant in Owings Mills.

In Northwest Baltimore County, police had to walk to some of the 300-plus accidents because roads were too treacherous to drive.

More than a dozen school buses in Baltimore and Carroll counties were involved in accidents, all of them minor and without injuries, police said.

In Baltimore City police were forced to temporarily close stretches of Northern Parkway and Park Heights Avenue to permit salting.

Howard County had 148 accidents by mid-morning, most of them minor. One person was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Two of the county's 40 salt trucks were stuck for more than an hour on Main Street in Ellicott City because slippery conditions had stopped traffic. In Columbia, a stretch of Little Patuxent Parkway was closed briefly.

In Carroll County, a Lineboro ambulance crashed into a Hampstead police car on Route 30 near the Baltimore County line, causing an estimated $5,000 in damage to the cruiser. No one was seriously injured, Hampstead Police Chief Ken Meekins said.

Several pregnant women went into labor after ice-related car accidents and gave birth either soon after arriving at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore or on their way in emergency vehicles, according to a nurse at the hospital who declined to provide details.

The unexpected ice also kept criminal defendants -- and their lawyers -- from their day in court. Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney had six cases on his criminal docket. He walked into the courtroom at 9:15 a.m. to find just one prosecutor, one criminal defense attorney and one defendant. "The weather put a cold freeze on the criminal docket here," Sweeney said.

The icy morning seemed a far cry from the mild day meteorologists had predicted.

But in fact, there was only a trace amount of precipitation, created when a weak storm system carrying warm air from the plains states collided with cold air in the mid-Atlantic region, said Bernie Rayno, senior meteorologist with AccuWeather in State College, Pa.

"As far as precipitation amounts go, this was a very insignificant event," said Calvin Meadows, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "The only thing that makes it noteworthy is where it occurred and the time of the year. Any other time of the year, no one would be interested.

"The area it fell in is not that large. Unfortunately, it just happened to be the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area where it fell," he said. "It doesn't take much to put a glaze of ice on the roads. It just came together at an unfortuitous time."

Some parts of the state were spared, including Anne Arundel County. State police in Annapolis reported no weather-related accidents, while state police in Glen Burnie said there was only one accident that might have been related to road conditions about 9 a.m. from eastbound Route 195 on the ramp to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway southbound. No one was seriously injured, authorities said.

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