At least 80 miles of U.S. Highway 93 north of Pioche to Ely was closed shortly after noon Nov. 21 due to heavy drifting snow, which in some places measured as much as four to six feet deep.
The closure trapped more than 50 cars and commercial vehicles on the stretch, mostly in White Pine County, forcing many motorists to have to spend the night in their vehicles, according to the Nevada Highway Patrol and Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department.
As the storm blew in, drivers started exercising caution. Eventually though, visibility was less than 50 feet, and many motorists simply stopped in the road to wait it out. As the next vehicle approached, they would try to go around and find themselves stuck. A bottleneck effect started to transpire, and at one point, the two-lane highway had four cars side by side as travelers tried to pass on the shoulder.
NHP even had roadblocks at Crystal Junction directing traffic up state route 318 to Lund. Local traffic moving north to Caliente, Panaca and Pioche was allowed through.
Sheriff Kerry Lee said NDOT was having to deal with so many cars off the road, in blizzard-like weather conditions, “they just couldn’t keep up, and closed the highway.”
The road remained closed through the night and until late Friday afternoon while Highway Patrol and other state agencies rescued the stranded motorists and getting cars that slid off, back onto the road. Postal packages from Ely could not be delivered, including Friday’s issue of the Lincoln County Record.
White Pine and the northern portion of Lincoln County accumulated five inches of snow during the first major snowstorm of the season, but an estimated three feet of snow was measured closer to Ely. The heavy winds accounted for the deep snow drifts.
Governor Sandoval told the highway patrol to use all means necessary to help stranded drivers and keep from having any loss of life on the road. There were no injuries reported.
The Elko Daily Free Press reported, “The motorists were trapped in snowstorms that accumulated up to 6 feet.” Highway Patrol Capt. Tom Merschel of the Elko Command said, “Some were trapped between 10 to 12 hours.”
Ed Wright of Pioche said he was informed of a family named Poulsen, operators at Atlanta Farms, and their three kids, who were heading to Idaho, took in a family unknown to them, “a woman and her baby, in their large diesel truck to keep warm overnight. They were stranded for 19 hours,” he said.
As cars remained trapped between mile markers 19 and 23 overnight, NHP used snowmobiles, snowplows and shovels to get the cars out of the storm. Troopers also brought fuel to the motorists overnight to keep their cars running.
Merschel said up to 12 troopers helped to get the cars out as several churches in the area provided meals for the motorists.
Trooper Jared Prengel from Ely NHP said some motorists were taken to a nearby ranch by the Shoshone road turnoff. “It seemed like something out of a movie,” he said. Prengel was first responder to the scene. He said they started digging cars out by hand until the loaders could get through. Once some cars were freed, he would leave the motorists to tend to other vehicles. The motorists would then attempt to drive further after being freed rather than wait on the snow plows, only to find themselves stuck again. One snow plow was reported getting stuck while working the roads.
The National Weather Service said a low-pressure front dropped down from Alaska, followed closely by a high-pressure system that stirred up the heavy snow and winds. Three deaths were reported in California and five others in the western states. High school football and soccer playoffs were cancelled in Arizona due to bad weather.
The weather system moved east and plagued the Midwest in the days before Thanksgiving.
NHP offered tips for safe travel. Highest on the list was driving only if you had to, and not driving around vehicles that are already stuck. If you do have to travel, bring winter necessities: coats, gloves, blankets, etc.