The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 19, 2014

Icy conditions wreak havoc on drivers

JOHNSTOWN — The temperature in Johnstown at 7 a.m. Wednesday was 35 degrees, and when precipitation fell, it came as rain.

The problem, which led to dozens of delays, cancellations and traffic crashes, including one that resulted in a death, was the temperature of the ground.

“Especially in Cambria County. It started as rain. The temperatures were above freezing,” said Elyse Colbert, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “But the ground was cold, so it froze.

“It was just a really bad thing and it came through at rush hour,” Colbert said in a telephone interview from the NWS State College office.

The rainfall in the region started around 5 a.m. and lasted to about 9, said Ron Springer, executive director of Cambria County Emergency Management Department.

The result wreaked havoc on portions of major routes such as 219 and 22 and some smaller roads including the Munster-Portage road, Springer said.

Hardest hit in Cambria County was the Chickaree Mountain area, Springer said, where traffic crashes resulted in tie-ups lasting much of the morning.

A Somerset County deputy coroner, who also was a retired police officer for Somerset Borough, was killed about 9:30 a.m. in a two-vehicle accident in Milford Township, according to state police.

He was identified as James W. Hahn, 73, of Somerset, a driver.

The crash, which sent the second driver to the hospital, closed ice-covered Water Level Road for much of the morning.

A 17-year-old male was northbound when his vehicle went out of control on the icy road and traveled into the opposite lane, where it struck the Hahn vehicle, police said.

Hahn was prononced dead at the scene by another deputy coroner, Cliff Ziegler.

Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said Hahn was a great man.

“He was good with people,” he said, adding that Hahn also worked for him at the Miller Funeral Homes and Crematory.

Hahn was a good family man and has two sons in Meyersdale, he said.

“We’re going to miss him a lot,” Miller said. “He was like family to us.”

 The biggest impact of weather on traffic was to the north on Interstate 80 in Clearfield County, where state police reported icy highway surfaces caused a pileup of 20 tractor-trailers, 10 commercial vehicles and dozens of cars and pickup trucks.

No fatalities were reported, but more than a dozen people were injured.

In an unusual move, CamTran canceled all bus service from 6 through 9 a.m. due to the ice-covered roadways and sidewalks.

“The decision was made to temporarily suspend bus service, both urban and rural routes,” said CamTran’s Josh Yoder. “It’s been a long time since we’ve done that.”

The concern was not only for the passengers, but the drivers as well, he said.

PennDOT and municipal road crews struggled to keep up with changing highway conditions.

Richland Township public works director Rian Barker said there was just one word to describe the change of events.

“Terrible,” said Barker, speaking after the temperatures warmed and the ice melted. “That was pretty terrible this morning.”

Most of the road closures in the township were PennDOT-maintained highways, but Richland crews were kept busy clearing ice away from 15 or more storm drains, Barker said.

PennDOT in Somerset has highway watchers out all night and crews began pretreating the road surfaces early, said Anita Moody, PennDOT’s Somerset County roadway program coordinator.

Drivers need to watch for freezing ice spots as temperatures drop, Moody said.

“We are not out of winter yet, and they definitely need to continue to use caution,” she said.

Colbert of the NWS said the rain began moving out of the Johnstown area sometime after 7 a.m., but it took a while for temperatures to warm and melt the ice.

Rain is possible again today, but temperatures will be higher than Wednesday and the icing should not reoccur, she said.

The greatest threat today likely will be fog as the warmer temperatures move in. This evening could be especially troublesome with drivers hampered by fog, she said.

More rain is expected Friday morning, and some areas in Cambria and Somerset counties may even experience some thundershowers and gusty winds, Colbert said.

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