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Photos by Al Key

Truck plunges off bridge; 18-wheelers stuck for miles

Profile image for By Megan Gray / Staff Writer
By Megan Gray / Staff Writer

Texas National Army Guard arriving at 2 p.m. to assist with stranded motorists from Denton County to Oklahoma

Northbound Interstate 35E was reopened shortly after 9 a.m. after being closed for hours Saturday morning when a driver of a pickup spun out of control and landed into the icy waters of Lewisville Lake, officials said.

The body of the driver - believed to be a woman about 40 years of age – was still in the driver’s side when the truck was pulled from the lake by the Lewisville Fire Department around 7:30 a.m. 

The identity of the driver has not been released at this time, pending notification of family. The vehicle was described as being a maroon-colored Chevy pickup truck.

A spokesman for the Texas Highway Patrol said the pickup truck spun out of control while traveling north on I-35E at 3:50 a.m. this morning.

According to witnesses at the scene, the pickup truck lost control on the bridge, and went over the east guardrail and into the water.

Several areas on the bridge have at least two and a half inches of ice making for treacherous travel conditions, officials said. 

Near Sanger, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Lonny Haschel said last night 18-wheelers opted to pull over and spend the night on the side of the road in their cabs because of the road conditions.

As the roads are shut down again, officials are telling everyone to stay in.

"It's a domino effect," Haschel said. 

Once the roadways are re-opened, a vehicle will get stuck and cause the whole highway to get clogged up again before it even begins to free up, resulting in many motorists left stranded on the highway. 

"Bridges and overpasses are especially dangerous and we are still asking everyone to stay off [roads] until the weather clears," he said.

Jody Gonzalez, emergency management coordinator for Denton County, said an estimated 300 vehicles stayed on the road overnight.

The interstate is backed up from Oklahoma to the county line, officials said.

Shortly before 11 a.m., officials confirmed a unit from the Texas Army National Guard from Wichita Falls was being deployed to help local officials with assisting stranded motorists along the interstate.

With help from the military convoy, southbound Interstate 35 was fixed, but now northbound is a parking lot,Gonzalez said.

The interstate is backed up from Cooke County.

Officials continue to advise everyone to stay off the roadways. Additional Texas Department of Transportation trucks are on their way from East Texas and will not be arriving until sometime Sunday morning. 

They are sending five additional sand trucks and three road graders, Gonzalez said.

"Our concern is mainly the motorists inside the passenger vehicles, since truckers can always get in the back of their cabs, but we are still concerned for them, too," Gonzalez said.

The Denton Fire Department also sent additional crews to assist with welfare checks on stranded motorists on I-35, said Kenneth Hedges, fire department spokesman. Firefighters were planning to pass out blankets and water to residents staying in their automobiles along the freeway.

Crews walked and drove along Interstate 35 and the service roads to bring motorists into shelters.

"We had an estimated 220 in three shelters overnight," Gonzalez said."The Sanger community has been wonderful opening their doors to help."

First Baptist Church in Sanger opened as the fourth shelter at noon today.

Four county trucks and three city of Denton trucks worked until about 3 a.m. Saturday morning sanding five to six miles of road, officials said.

"We even had a road grater and that didn't help," Gonzalez said. "It's not sheets but chunks of ice."

He said Sanger, Aubrey and Pilot Point were the hardest hit areas in the region, getting at least four inches of sleet and winter mixture during the cold front Thursday.

Accidents, stranded motorists

From noon Thursday through early Saturday, Denton police have assisted 359 stranded motorists, some of whom slid off the road and  needed help pulling them out of ditches.

At least 43 minor accidents and two major accidents have been reported. Police officers also have responded to 54 traffic hazard calls.

Weather overview

Icy roadways aren't expected to clear up anytime soon.

Jesse Moore, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office based in Fort Worth, said they are still looking at some slight patches of snow and sleet across the Dallas-Fort Worth region later today. 

"We don't expect there to be any additional accumulations adding up, but there is some detection in the air," he said. 

Residents are facing the coldest temperatures since February 2011.

Overnight, the temperatures well stay about where they are now — 22 degrees — minus a few degrees, Moore said. The NWS website indicated an overnight low of 19 degrees.

Sunday, the area is expected to warm up a few degrees above freezing, resulting in some ice melting, but the temperature will drop into the teens overnight Sunday into Monday morning as skies clear, freezing anything that might have melted.

"Expect to have ice on the roads Monday," Moore said. "With it staying cloudy Monday, we should still have ice around Tuesday."

Not until midweek are officials predicting the ice to officially come to an end.

"Wednesday will get to mid 40s and the sun will be out, melting away anything that might still be lingering," Moore said.

Staying home

Most Denton County residents appeared to take the warnings to stay home to heart, however, with only a few attempting to commute or drive on the slippery streets.

Many of those who did venture out eventually needed some help from police and fire, and even local responders said they sometimes found themselves stuck on icy roadways.

Between noon Thursday and Friday, the Denton police responded to at least 29 minor accidents and two major accidents with unknown injuries. Officers were called to assist more than 100 stranded motorists, including some who slid off the road and needed a truck to pull them back.

Officers also responded to 35 traffic hazards involving vehicles stuck in the middle of a roadway, blocking other vehicles. Some of the highways were so bad that the ice created its own potholes, and bridges and overpasses were particularly treacherous.

The A-train commuter line that runs from Denton to Carrollton experienced significant delays Friday but reported only one to two passengers per car. Bus service in Denton was not operating Friday because of the icy roads.

Local colleges and universities — including the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University — canceled classes on Friday, as did all the local school systems.

The Salvation Army increased its capacity from 34 to 50 beds. The dining room was opened and mats were offered for people to stay at the facility, said Sgt. Carlo Hernandez, with the Salvation Army.

The shelter’s hours were extended so that it will be open 24 hours until the weather improves enough for the shelter to return to its regular hours, from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Power outages

Denton Municipal Electric reported two minor outages overnight into Friday morning that affected about 20 customers each. Crews were able to restore power within an hour, according to spokesman Brian Daskam.

CoServ also saw two outages that affected about 1,800 customers in Frisco, McKinney and Allen, and another that affected about 30 customers in Prosper. About 7 a.m. Friday, the electric cooperative received a report that a transformer may have blown in Little Elm, affecting about 524 customers. Crews were working to restore service there.

In Denton County, Oncor reported a small outage in Corinth that affected fewer than five customers. Most of its other outages were reported on the east side of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Residents got a bit of a break on power outages. Because the freezing rain eventually turned to sleet sooner than expected overnight, trees and power lines did not have the heavy ice accumulations that had been feared.

Emergency responders

A heat lamp caused a fire early Friday morning in a garage that caused $1,000 in damages, said Kenneth Hedges, spokesman for the Denton Fire Department.

The small fire in the 2400 block of Sherwood Street was caused by a heat lamp that had been turned on in the garage to try to keep pipes from freezing, he said.

No one was displaced and no injuries were reported.

In Pilot Point late Thursday, a street light caught fire in town, according to a spokesperson for the fire department. Officials believe the fire was weather-related.

Drivers — and driving — caused the most headaches for local law enforcement.

Denton Battalion Chief Charles Goodman said he hasn’t missed a day of work because of weather in 27 years, but this year’s storm was possibly the worst drive he has ever had.

“I am afraid it is only going to worse,” he said by e-mail. “Once the roads get a little traffic on them to pack down the ice, then it refreezes [Friday] evening, it is going to be a bugger-bear.”

Shane Kizer, one of several Denton police officers patrolling Friday, said he placed a tarp on his windshield to keep it from being blanketed in a sheet of ice.

“Even backing out of the driveway was bad,” he said. “More people are out in the weather than we would like to see on a day like this.”

He said many motorists who stopped at intersections weren’t able to get their cars moving again.

“Once you come to a complete stop and use the brake, it’s a bad situation,” he said. “Even traveling where there is sand on the roads is difficult.”

Sheriff William Travis said his deputies mainly responded to some spin-outs and wrecks, but nothing too serious.

By mid-day Friday, northbound Interstate 35E traffic was at a standstill near the Lewisville Lake bridge. And southbound traffic on I-35 just south of Sanger stopped as drivers faced trouble topping the hill on the ice-packed freeway.

Roof collapses

An estimated 60 boats are reported damaged after heavy ice caused the roof of a row of boat slips to collapse at the Pier 121 Marina Friday afternoon at Lewisville Lake, Assistant Lewisville Fire Chief Terry McGrath said. 

Some of the boats in the slip were house boats, and one man had to be pulled from the wreckage, he said.

"A man was living inside his boat at the slip during the time of collapse, so crews helped him out," McGrath said.

No injuries were reported and management for the marina is assessing the damages.

The call came in shortly after noon on Friday, after what McGrath termed an "eerily quiet" 18 hours. He attributes the few problems to media coverage warning residents of the wintery storm as it approached.

"Tonight is going to be interesting though," he said." All the crunchy ice mixture will refreeze and now we have 24 hours of below-freezing temperatures under our belts."

So far, the department has responded to just a handful of minor accidents and a few slips and falls.

Metal roof and awning collapses were also reported in Denton at an apartment complex, home and business and in Pilot Point.

Officials hope everyone continues to heed the warnings and stay in and stay safe. 

Road crews at work

Denton County Commissioner Andy Eads said county crews worked through the night sanding the roadways that are the most heavily traveled.

“Our bridges are frozen and we will be handling them on a priority basis based on the traffic volume they normally experienced,” he said.

Crews went out in multiple shifts, applying the sand and salt mixture.

“This weather incident is countywide,” Eads said. “TxDOT [the Texas Department of Transportation] is handling the state roads, the cities are handling the city roads and these crews are handling the county roads and unincorporated areas as best we can.”

According to city of Denton spokeswoman Lindsey Baker, city crews sanded bridges and arterials all night, but with the continuing precipitation, most of it was covered up. They were continuing to work Friday sanding the city’s thoroughfares.

What’s ahead

The sleet and freezing rain ended about midday on Friday but possibly could return late today.

The official monitor at Denton Enterprise Airport recorded “unknown precipitation” for much of the night Thursday into Friday, though accumulations of as much as five inches of ice and sleet were seen in some areas of Denton.

And the cold temperatures are here to stay at least into Sunday, according to Matt Bishop, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“I don’t see a warm-up — maybe a degree or two,” Bishop said. “While it’s unusual to get this cold for this long, and it’s not a normal pattern, it happens from time to time.”

Denton County’s emergency management coordinator, Jody Gonzalez, encouraged residents to stay off area roadways if at all possible.

“Our three main concerns are stranded motorists who can’t get anywhere on the highway, power outages — not just for a short period of time but for a long duration — and the amount of debris across the county we have to deal with after the storm is over,” Gonzalez said.

Road closures

The following is a list of road closures provided by the Denton County Sheriff's Office:

475 mile marker at Interstate 35 – 18-wheelers are stuck

459 mile marker I-35 – 18-wheelers are stuck

16000 block of FM51 – Wreckers on the way to assist 18-wheelers stuck on the road.

FM 2449 

Southbound entrance ramp at FM 455 in Sanger

Southbound I-35 at FM2449