By BILL ARCHER & GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
A mix of sleet and rain falling Thursday on the region where West Virginia and Virginia meet spawned numerous crashes as motorists coped with slick road conditions.
Area 911 centers started receiving calls about motor vehicle accidents soon after sleet arrived over southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. Dispatchers sent fire departments and other first responders to crashes as soon as the sleet began to accumulate. In Mercer County, crashes were reported on Oakvale Road near Princeton, Route 460, near Athens, Matoaka and other locations.
Crashes were also reported in neighboring Bland County, Va.
At about 3 p.m. Thursday roads on the northern side of East River Mountain were slush-covered, and I-77 southbound was slick.
The interstate surface on the southern side of the mountain appeared to change from slush to wet to ice near the Rocky Gap exit at mile marker 65.
Two tractor-trailer rigs — one pulling a tanker and the other pulling a freight box — wrecked side by side, crossing both southbound lanes of I-77 and bringing traffic to a halt. Traffic backed up from the Rocky Gap exit to the south exit of the East River Mountain Tunnel dedicated to the memory of H. Edward Steele.
Another black sedan appeared to have been damaged in the wreck.
Traffic was routed down the Rocky Gap exit, and back up the entrance ramp to I-77. The southbound lanes of the tunnel were closed, and traffic backed up into West Virginia.
A dispatcher with the Virginia State Police headquarters in Wytheville, Va., said that troopers were working wrecks throughout the area and were not available for additional comment.
A change in the forecasted factors created snow and sleet that had not been expected, according to the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Va.
“Basically, we were expecting a mix of precipitation today,” said meteorologist Chris Fisher. “The reason why we’re dealing with snow is that we had a lot of dry air in the lower levels (of the atmosphere) this morning.”
The result was “evaporation cooling” that lowered temperatures very quickly.
“We didn’t anticipate the amount of cooling we had today,” Fisher said. “Instead of switching over to rain, it’s been snow and sleet today.”
“That kind of difference shows how elevation dependent this system was,” meteorologist Phil Hysell said. “There was a tremendous amount of dry air near the surface that changed the rain to snow flakes at higher elevations.”
Hysell said that the system should move through quickly Thursday night. He said the snow should end at about 9 p.m. Thursday night, but the rain will continue through the night and early this morning.
“A storm like this can show you what a difference topography makes in our weather in the mountains,” Hysell said.
“Eventually, the warm air will win out and we will eventually slip over to rain,” Fisher said.
“The precipitation should pretty much be ending by daybreak. Once we get this stuff out of here, there should be a warm up into the weekend and next week as we approach Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The long-range forecast stays pretty warm. This should be our last little bit of winter.”