Stranded travelers spent more than a day on the PA Turnpike over the weekend.

This weekend’s blizzard left hundreds of people, including a bus full of Temple athletes, stranded in the middle of Pennsylvania for more than 24 hours in a 100-mile backup on the Turnpike. And while the Turnpike commission is thankful no one was injured and has apologized for their delay, in many ways things went according to plan.

“Plan X,” that is.

Plan X is an emergency protocol run by the independent Turnpike Commission, in partnership with Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. It’s that group’s pre-planned response to emergencies on the Turnpike.

Plan X is instituted when all lanes are shut down because of construction or a major accident. In this case, it’s the response used to shut down portions of the Turnpike to get hundreds of stranded people re-routed and off the roadway.

The long back-up between Somerset and Bedford in western Pennsylvania began late Friday evening when blizzard conditions were picking up and, in some cases, dumping two to three inches of snow on the area per hour. Gov. Tom Wolf’s office, which has monitoring the situation since Saturday, says the incident started when two tractor trailers struggled to navigate the mountains heading toward Pittsburgh and jack-knifed.

Traffic then began to back up behind them and other trucks and buses became unable to make it up and over hills in the area. Cars got backed up, buses carrying hundreds of people came to a screeching halt and people became stuck on the Turnpike for more than a day. A makeshift Mass even took place at an alter made of snow.

Plan X, a system that utilizes pre-determined routes for commercial and passenger vehicles, went into effect overnight Friday to attempt to get people out of the area.

On Friday night, 135 first responders were on scene and by Saturday, some 250 were there, including National Guard troops who brought in heavier equipment and attempted to move snow out of areas to get people out. Once PEMA was notified, it made contact with State Police and local police and fire officials who deployed responders on ATVs and performed vehicle-by-vehicle checks.

A Plan X implementation guide posted online shows a carefully laid-out process that includes dozens of steps ranging from notifying 911 dispatch centers in the area to updating portable signs to calling for help with long-term rescue plans.

According to the Turnpike Commission, Plan X is used in these cases:

  • the road blockage is expected to remain for at least an hour or more
  • the traffic backlog from an accident is lengthy, with no immediate expectation of improved conditions
  • other situations which would merit road closure in the best judgment of the on-scene Commission personnel and Pennsylvania State Police

So a 100-mile backup with people stranded in blizzard-like conditions certainly qualified. Once the plan was called into place overnight Friday, work began to effectively shut down the Turnpike in those areas, notify a laundry list of agencies and personnel and then begin to get people off the road.

How’s that done? In most cases, drivers stuck on the road are given assist cards with directions from Turnpike workers and that provides information on how they can be re-routed off the Turnpike on pre-determined roadways.

In blizzard conditions, that’s easier said than done. It took more than 24 hours for responders to clean up the area. Tractor trailers, buses and passenger vehicles had to be directed out one-by-one only after areas were cleared (without the use of a large plow; cars were blocking the road) and the vehicles were pulled out of the snow and ice.

In the meantime, the Turnpike Commission delivered fuel to vehicles that were running out and responders brought food and water to those stranded in their cars.

Turnpike officials have taken some heat for the response and others have wondered why the roadway wasn’t shut down to traffic before the build-up occurred. Turnpike Commission Chairman Sean Logan issued a statement apologizing to travelers and promising a thorough review of response efforts.

“I want to be certain that we do a better job the next time something like this occurs,” he said, “and that we can learn from this tragedy.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.