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Rain's a pain

A stretch of Interstate 29 south of Grand Forks turned nearly impassable about 7 a.m. Wednesday after a cold rain fell on colder pavement. Drivers slowed to 10 mph or slower, creeping along the suddenly slick road between Grand Forks and Hillsbor...

A stretch of Interstate 29 south of Grand Forks turned nearly impassable about 7 a.m. Wednesday after a cold rain fell on colder pavement.

Drivers slowed to 10 mph or slower, creeping along the suddenly slick road between Grand Forks and Hillsboro. Many decided to wait for the sun and the sand truck, some coming to a skidding halt on the shoulder or, more often, perched diagonally in the roadside ditch.

Much of the slow-motion chaos was concentrated around the Thompson, Reynolds and Buxton, N.D., exits, where dozens of cars and semis came to rest in the ditches. Near mile marker 132, alarmed motorists watched about 8 a.m. as a southbound sanding truck almost skidded off the road before driving over the median and nearly skidding off again in the northbound lanes.

Further up the road, the Thompson exit was closed where one trailer bed of a two-trailer semi was overturned. In the northbound lane, a semi sat with about one-fourth of its metal wall gored off and sagging.

Shortly afterward, the Highway Patrol districts in Grand Forks and Fargo issued advisories asking drivers to stay off I-29 south of Grand Forks.

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By the end of the afternoon, there was one injury accident and 11 accidents without injuries in the Grand Forks district, according to the Highway Patrol, plus many more cars in the ditch and some semitrailers jackknifed in the roadway.

On the other side of the river, the Minnesota State Patrol reported four non injury crashes and one injury accident south of Warren. That driver was treated and released. One man was killed in a rollover accident in the Erskine, Minn., area, but Polk County officials couldn't confirm Wednesday if the accident was weather related.

Sheriff's departments in Grand Forks, Polk, Traill and Steele counties all reported numerous calls for assistance in the ditches.

Good Samaritans

Craig Johnson, a staff writer at BBI International in Grand Forks, left Fargo early Wednesday morning for what he thought would be his ordinary daily commute.

"It was damp. I didn't think anything of it," Johnson said. "I thought of it as the typical North Dakota weather."

A little more than half way to Grand Forks the situation changed quickly. Rain and sleet swept through and covered the roadway with ice.

"I was probably going 70 to 75 mph heading over that hill near Buxton," he said. "It quickly went to impossible driving conditions."

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Johnson said after the hill there were semi drivers pulled over waving at traffic to slow down.

"I was going slow, probably about 5 mph, when a truck driver ran up to my vehicle to tell me it wasn't worth it," he said.

He decided to pull over at that point and ended up waiting about 30 minutes for the sand trucks to make their way through.

After the trucks passed, Johnson made his way back on to the interstate, traveling about 10 mph. Past Thompson, he saw a driver heading south in an SUV lose control and swerve. The SUV turned sideways toward the ditch, clipping a mile marker and then flipping six to ten times, according to Johnson.

"I stopped, pulled over and ran out to check on the driver," Johnson said. "Another guy ran out with me and other people joined us."

When he reached the driver he was conscious and pretty alert, according to Johnson. The driver was a bit twisted up in his seatbelt that remained buckled.

"He would have died, I'm sure, if he hadn't had his seatbelt on," Johnson said. "All the windows were shattered and the roof was dented in about 8 to 10 inches."

"We tried to get him out, but his foot was caught under the truck," he said. "There were four or five guys at that point helping, so we were able to rock the vehicle enough so he could free his foot."

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Eventually, the group was able to free the driver through the vehicle's moon roof. A couple of women brought over sleeping bags for the injured man as they waited for the paramedics to arrive.

"It was harrowing," Johnson said of his morning commute.

"It makes me feel comfortable knowing if I ever needed help here, people would stop and help me," he said. "My wife and I lived in Denver where maybe you would wait as 300 to 400 people passed you before someone would stop. Here it's maybe like three or four."

Roadways cleared

Capt. Kevin Robson said he called in extra Highway Patrol troopers to handle all the crashes in the Grand Forks district shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Conditions improved by midafternoon as temperatures warmed and sanding trucks got to work.

The Highway Patrol replaced its no-travel advisory with a public "thank you" for mostly staying off the interstate until it was safer. Cars and trucks were cleared from the ditches and traffic flow was near to normal with no blocked roads, according to the patrol.

Gateway BP Amoco in Grand Forks kept two trucks busy rescuing stranded drivers, according to owner Bob Eckerdt. He said it was slow going for all drivers, even the tow truck drivers.

"You know, we can only go so fast, too. The road conditions are the same for us," he said.

By 11 a.m., Eckerdt said, things had slowed down and they were back to towing vehicles experiencing mechanical trouble.

The crew at the Grand Forks County Highway Department also kept busy dealing with the freezing rain, according to supervisor Richard Onstad.

"We had the sand trucks going out early," Onstad said.

Herald staff writer Ali Rude contributed to this report. Reach Nagel at (701) 780-1262, (800) 477-6572, ext. 262; or anagel@gfherald.com .

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