Warren County

Interstate 70 was shut down for hours in Warren County. Here's what happened.

By Jason Koch, Editor
Posted 2/22/24

The Missouri Department of Transportation, State Highway Patrol, and Warren County EMA explain why hundreds were stuck on the highway.

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Warren County

Interstate 70 was shut down for hours in Warren County. Here's what happened.


The winter storm that blasted Warren County on Feb. 16 left hundreds of drivers stranded on Interstate 70, some for more than eight hours, and left many people asking what went wrong.

The answer is tricky, according to representatives from Warren County, the Missouri Department of Transportation, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

“I’m not sure that anything went wrong, per se, although I understand how that sounds to somebody who had to sit in traffic all night,” Warren County Emergency Management Director Jim Sharp said.

A lot of the problems can be attributed to the storm itself, which was more intense and arrived much more quickly than expected.

In the days prior to Feb. 16, the National Weather Service had an active winter weather advisory for several Missouri counties, but it did not include Warren County, Sharp said.

The winter weather advisory for Warren County wasn’t issued until 10:37 a.m. Feb. 16, and was to go into effect at 11 a.m, and projected one to three inches of snow.

“911 received the first weather related call at 10:58 that morning,” Sharp said. “So barely 20 minutes after the weather service had issued it, we got our first weather-related motor vehicle crash.”

The first weather-related crash on Interstate 70 happened at 11:29 a.m., and within an hour there had been nine total collisions on the highway.

Those crashes included a massive incident that forced several vehicles off the roadway and shut down the westbound lanes of I-70 through Warren County, causing traffic to back up all the way to Wentzville.

Gerdes Harlan, a resident of Hermann, was traveling eastbound on I-70 near Wright City when he saw the pileup occur.

“I looked over to the westbound side and saw a tractor-trailer in the passing lane stopped. A car was a small distance behind it and then a black pickup truck was stuck in the ditch behind them,” he said. “As I crested the hill, I saw more vehicles coming toward them. I saw a minivan come down the hill first and it hit the pickup truck, then a passenger sedan came down the hill and hit them, and I saw a few others end up in that dog pile.”

Traveling with his window down, he said he heard a number of crashes.

“I took it as a sign to get off of the interstate, and I did.”

The day would only get worse from there.

“MoDOT crews began working the storm at 6 a.m. Friday and had continuous shifts working through Saturday afternoon,” Jeff Niemeyer, the MoDOT area engineer, said. “The rate of snowfall was greater than forecasted. When you have bursts of heavy snowfall, it can cover a road quickly. There were multiple slide offs and crashes on eastbound and westbound I-70 in multiple locations between Foristell and Truxton on Friday afternoon. Once the interstate was closed from these crashes, it took a long time to get in the appropriate tow equipment to get them out. We had difficulties getting our snowplows to the crash scenes with working around the stopped traffic.”

Dallas Thompson, the public information officer for Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop C that serves Warren County, said it became difficult to keep traffic moving because tractor-trailers were having so many issues.

“There were numerous tractor-trailers spinning out and becoming stuck while trying to climb the hills on 70 between the 191 and 200 mile markers,” he said. “MSHP worked with tow companies and MoDOT to get trucks going. But as soon as we’d get traffic flowing, more trucks became stuck.”

Meanwhile, the winter storm continued to pound the region until the early afternoon before tapering off about 3:30 p.m., with the winter weather advisory being canceled at 4 p.m.

But at that point, the westbound lanes were still closed, and eastbound lanes near Truxton were at one lane. That section of the highway would soon be completely closed, too.

And that forced hundreds of drivers to continue to sit on the interstate for what would end up being several hours.

Cindy Phipps, of Mexico, was one of those drivers stuck in the eastbound lanes. She was headed to her daughter’s house in Brentwood with tickets to see “Mama Mia” that she had received for Christmas.

Instead, she said she sat on the interstate for more than 11 hours, much of that at the Truxton exit.

“I needed to go to the bathroom terribly bad, but upon opening my door, my foot slipped because it was a solid sheet of ice,” she said. “So then I was afraid to try it outside.” 

The ice became the next big issue those trying to open the highway had to overcome.

“This was one of the issues with the stopped traffic,” Niemeyer said. “The running vehicles melt the snow and drop to the pavement. Then with the temperatures being in the teens on Friday night, this water quickly froze on the roadway. So as we cleared the accidents, we also had to get the vehicle going and keep them going or they would spin out.”

That ultimately made it even more difficult to get the roadway open. It was shortly after 10 p.m. Friday evening when MoDOT opened one lane of westbound I-70 near Wright City. But less than two hours later, the lanes were closed again because trucks were having trouble getting the traction needed to get up the icy hill. 

Those lanes wouldn’t reopen until 2:41 a.m. Saturday.

These images were taken by Amy Davis, who was one of the hundreds of drivers stuck on I-70 on Feb. 16.
These images were taken by Amy Davis, who was one of the hundreds of drivers stuck on I-70 on Feb. 16.

The eastbound lanes were even trickier, as there was a new accident shortly after a previous crash was cleared. And not long after the second crash was cleared, a tractor-trailer jackknifed, blocking both lanes.

Eastbound I-70 wouldn’t open through Warren County until 3:27 a.m. Saturday. Traffic would not start flowing normally in the area until almost 6 a.m. as the traffic backlog stretched more than 12 miles.

Wright City Alderman Ramiz Hakim spent the afternoon into the early morning hours of Saturday providing updates on the road conditions. Hakim said he saw the growing frustration of those on the interstate, and much of it stemmed from the lack of official communication.

“It’s one thing to have a catastrophic situation happen,” Hakim said. “It’s another thing to have a catastrophic situation happen and not know what’s going on, and that is bigger than the actual snow event.”

Amy Davis, of O’Fallon, who was trapped on I-70 from 10:17 p.m. until 3:55 a.m., credited Hakim with being the most communicative person in the county. He and Sharp were consistently providing updates throughout the night via Facebook.

First responders were also out, many walking the highway doing what they could to keep drivers informed and safe during the shutdown.

“Our people were out for a long, long time in those absolutely terrible, often very dangerous conditions,” Sharp, the county EMA director, said. “I had law enforcement officers on the highway on foot, carrying buckets of salt because that was the only way we could reach the semis that were stuck.”

Warrenton Mayor Eric Schlueter said during the Feb. 20 board of aldermen meeting that MoDOT requested the help of two Warrenton plows to help get the interstate cleared.

In total, Sharp said that 24 agencies, both public and private, responded to the crisis.

All of them drew praise from Hakim.

“The fact that we had no injuries is a testament to how good our first responders are,” he said. “The actual plow drivers from MoDOT who had no say in organizing how to attack this issue did a great job when they were able to get to the scene. I feel like our EMA director and our sheriff did a wonderful job communicating with the public. Those things together are what saved lives. And if it wasn’t for communication from the county and for the hard work of our first responders who were literally walking the highway, we would have been in a much, much, much worse situation, no doubt about that.”

As for residents, those who continued to communicate via social media and through direct contact with The Record all made it to their destinations safely. Davis, who was stuck on eastbound interstate 70 was eventually able to get off the highway, but then got stuck behind another jackknifed tractor-trailer on the service road. She made it back to O’Fallon at 7:15 a.m. Saturday.

Phipps said that once she reached mile marker 193, she had no further issues.

“It was a completely cleared and dry highway,” she said.

But the event was a stark reminder that there is no guarantee of a quick trip on I-70. One crash can cause an hours-long shutdown, even on nice summer days.

“I would say just drive carefully and be prepared for the weather,” Niemeyer, the MoDOT area engineer said.

“What I would recommend to anybody is whether you were involved in this circumstance or not, imagine being on the road for 12 hours with nothing but what you had in the car,” Sharp said. “It really could happen anytime there’s a wreck on the highway.”

About the author: Jason Koch is the editor of The Warren County Record, and covers local news and government for the newspaper. He has won multiple awards from both the Indiana and Illinois APME and from the Illinois Press Association. He can be reached at 636-456-6397 or at jason@warrencountyrecord.com

warren county, interstate 70, shut down, modot, highway