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First snowfall hits Tri-State area

January 02, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY and DAN KULINs

The Tri-State area's first snowfall of 1999 shut down commercial flights at Hagerstown Regional Airport and created headaches on Saturday, but appears to have caused no major accidents, authorities said.

Police agencies in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia reported numerous traffic accidents Saturday, but most were minor fender-benders.

Road crews cleared the snow and then braced for a potentially nasty night of freezing rain and ice.

The snow began falling on Saturday

between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and continued throughout the day. About 1.6 inches of snow fell, according to readings taken by Hagerstown weather observer Greg Keefer.

By about 9:30 a.m., Hagerstown City Police initiated the snow emergency plan.

During a snow emergency, city police take some traffic lights off of a routine changing pattern and make the lights constantly blink.

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"You can't expect a car to stop on a hill and be able to start going again," said police dispatcher Bob Binau.

The snow forced the cancellation of US Airways service to Hagerstown Regional Airport, said airport office associate Janet Moats.

Private pilots were allowed to fly, but Moats said they were issued warnings about runway conditions.

Meanwhile, Moats said crews worked in the afternoon to clear snow off the runways. "They are working on the runways as we speak," she said.

Charles Town Races canceled live horse racing on Saturday, although gamblers could still wager on simulcast races or play video poker. Track officials said live racing was expected to resume this afternoon.

The snow and cold also pushed some into the Washington County Cold Weather Shelter in downtown Hagerstown.

About 20 people had showed up at the 148 W. Franklin St. homeless shelter by 9:30 p.m., said volunteer Kelly Graves.

That's less than the 26 people the night before, she said.

To homeless advocates, the cold is more worrisome than the snow.

"It's been very cold," said Teri Baker, director of Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless, or REACH. "There's a lot of concern because there's only so many resources."

Baker said the homeless shelter, which operates from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., has averaged about 25 people a night since it opened for the season last November.

The National Weather Service forecasted ice accumulations ranging from a half-inch to an inch on Saturday night. Freezing rain was supposed to end by daybreak this morning, meteorologist Dewey Walston said.

Today should be clear with highs in the mid-40s and Monday will be partly sunny with highs in the low 30s, according to forecasts.

Sunday's weather, particularly, should give snowplows a break, Walston said. "The roads would be fine, because it will get well above freezing," he said.

But Saturday night was a different story.

Road crews throughout the region plowed the roads clear of snow on Saturday morning and afternoon, and hunkered down for a long night.

Charles Fogle, the maintenance chief at the State Highway Administration office in Hagerstown, said trucks hit the roads at about 8:30 a.m., plowing and spreading more than 6 tons of salt on major and secondary roads in Washington County.

With snow already on the ground and sleet and freezing rain expected, Fogle said the 24 state vehicles were scheduled to be on the roads until at least midnight.

"But if it doesn't stop snowing, we'll be out 'til dawn," he said.

Eddie Foltz, a crew leader with the West Virginia Department of Transportation in Berkeley County, said seven or eight trucks were laying stone and rock salt on roads throughout the county.

Foltz said the crews hit the main roads and would get to some of the high-class secondary roads during the night.

"We're going to be watching the primaries very closely," he said.

Transportation officials in Fulton County, Pa., took a different approach to the coming ice.

Unlike road crews in surrounding counties, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation trucks did not plow the roadways. Instead, PENDOT equipment manager Perry Goetz said state road crews spread hundreds of tons of salt and crushed stone on top of the snow.

"If we scrape the roads now, we'll have more of a mess if the ice comes," Goetz said.

By leaving the snow which had fallen during the day on Saturday, Goetz said drivers would have better traction if the ice did come.

"Sleet and freezing rain on top of snow you can get traction on. But you can't on a sheet of ice," he said. "It's just a philosophy we are trying. We're trying to play it safe."

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