Motorists were stranded overnight Wednesday on Interstate 40 in Arkansas as vehicle wrecks on icy roads stalled traffic for up to 10 hours, authorities said.
Patches of ice that formed on the White River bridge in Monroe County resulted in a tractor-trailer crash that blocked the road in both directions, Arkansas Department of Transportation spokesman Danny Straessle said.
Arkansas State Police cleared the wreck, and salt trucks treated the road, but it wasn't long before other collisions stopped traffic again, Straessle said.
"That’s how it went all night," he said.
Separate wrecks in North Little Rock halted traffic there, and further problems were reported between Forrest City and Brinkley.
Straessle and Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said they did not know the exact number of crashes caused by winter weather conditions, but they said there were "several." Four people were killed in wrecks on icy roads in central Arkansas.
With wetlands occupying the surrounding terrain between the White River bridge and the nearest exit, there was nowhere for that traffic to go, Straessle said. Some motorists reported waiting up to 10 hours for the series of wrecks to be cleared.
"We’ve always had challenges when there’s been an accident out there," Straessle said. "We continued to put information out there about salt truck activities and how much longer it would be, but that’s all we could do.”
Ben Hornbeck was on his way home to Maumelle after a business trip in Memphis when he hit standstill traffic in Brinkley. He was stuck there for more than an hour until the wreck was cleared. He traveled 10 minutes down the road before having to stop for another three hours because of a crash.
“I thought it was over, but then I saw a flasher up ahead,” he said. "I checked Twitter consistently — because I had more time to do that — and the transportation department said it was cleared. Then the very next tweet was that there was another wreck 0.1 miles ahead of where they had just cleared the last one. It became almost comical.”
The approximately two-hour trip ended up taking a little more than 12 hours. Hornbeck said 10 of those hours were spent sitting in traffic. To pass the time, he checked Twitter, listened to an audiobook, started — and finished — a podcast series, and talked to his wife almost every hour to stay awake.
“I thought about falling asleep, but I didn’t want to be that guy and have people honking at me and knocking on my window telling me to move,” he said. “It was all kind of a blur."
Yet Hornbeck was luckier than many stranded travelers. He had a full tank of gas, a cell phone charger, a bottle of water and had eaten just outside of Memphis before hitting traffic.
“I was lucky because I had stuff with me,” he said. “And my son wasn’t with me. If he’d been with me, it would have been beyond a nightmare. It was not a fun experience, but it could have been a whole lot worse."
The Arkansas Department of Transportation encourages travelers to be prepared for winter weather by keeping food, bottled water and a blanket in their vehicle when they commute on the interstate over long distances.
Traffic began to clear Thursday morning as temperatures rose above freezing, but some sections were still blocked by truck drivers who had parked in the road and fallen asleep. Troopers knocked on doors and blared their sirens to wake drivers and get traffic moving, Sadler said.
Traffic remained heavy from Forrest City to Wheatley on Thursday morning. Many of the congested areas were still being cleared when travelers from Memphis got caught in the queue that had developed overnight, Straessle said.
The interstate’s westbound lanes, which were closed between Forrest City and Brinkley, reopened about 11:30 a.m. Thursday. Transportation officials said to expect delays, but traffic was slowly returning to normal.
"There is a lot of truck traffic in and out of Memphis, and it’s just a way of life for the interstate there in eastern Arkansas," he said. "Herding trucks is not an easy task."
No other roads were blocked as severely as I-40, Straessle said, but state police did report working crashes on the Cache River bridge in Lawrence County. The transportation department also reported an hourslong delay on I-40 west at an overpass in North Little Rock's Levy area as state police worked multiple accidents.
"Troopers worked a number of slide-offs and jackknifes on bridges where ice continued to form as soon as the highway department could clear it," Sadler said.