Stranded on Alberta highway for 13 hours, motorists ask where were the updates?
Mounties say travellers didn't heed warnings, while motorists say lack of information is unacceptable
Motorists stranded for hours on Highway 1, east of Canmore near Lac des Arcs, due to Tuesday's record snowfall say they're angry that they didn't receive frequent communication from Alberta Transportation and the RCMP about the travel conditions.
They say a lack of information led to an exhausting, confusing, frustrating and traumatic night before the route was reopened late in the morning on Wednesday.
The RCMP, for its part, said motorists failed to heed several warnings about poor winter driving conditions and still "ventured" out onto the highways.
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Richard Stech, his wife, their two sons and their three dogs were stuck on Highway 1 for 13 hours. The family was heading back from Vancouver after visiting relatives.
"The lack of communication was a big thing," said Stech, 55.
"Some communication would have been good, just to say, 'Listen, this is what's happening and this is what we're doing, and you might be out here for this length of time, so if you need anything, if it's an emergency, then this is the number to call.'"
The Stech family stayed Monday night in Golden, B.C., and then ventured out Tuesday to head home to Calgary. They made it to east of Canmore near Deadman's Flats, but then traffic came to a standstill, from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. MT on Wednesday.
"There was no police activity as far as letting us know what was going on," Stech said.
He said the family only had a few snacks and he was worried his SUV would run out of gas, so he was unable to keep the engine running to stay warm.
"We sat there cold, hungry, with no communication from any of the emergency services saying how long this was going to be. That's what made me really mad, how they handled this situation."
Stech said he called the Canmore detachment of the RCMP and was told to "'sit tight and conserve your fuel.'"
There was a 12-hour gap between the first, official RCMP warning about driving conditions and the closure of the highway at Lac des Arcs, 17 kilometres east of Canmore.
The RCMP issued its first warning about winter driving conditions at 11:12 a.m. Tuesday. It asked motorists to avoid travel along Highway 1 near Highway 22, saying vehicles are "scattered all over the highway and in the ditch."
At 1:28 p.m., two hours and 16 minutes later, RCMP issued an update saying Highway 1 at Highway 22 had been cleared and the road was passable, but poor winter driving conditions remained.
Ten hours later, at 11:29 p.m., RCMP issued a statement regarding extreme driving conditions on southern Alberta highways and said Highway 1 was closed in both directions at Lac des Arcs.
There was no mention of the people who had been stranded in their vehicles, some of them for 12 hours at that point.
'No idea when we were going to get out'
Julie MacNeil, who was trying to make it home to Okotoks, spent 17 hours in her vehicle with her fiancé, Alex Johnson.
She said it was terrifying, frustrating and scary — especially when it started to get dark.
"[We just thought] why isn't anyone coming? People were running out of food, water and gas. Everyone was trying to turn their cars off for a while in order to conserve their gas, because at this point we didn't know if we were going to be there for an hour, or a day or two days," said MacNeil.
"We had no idea when we were ever going to get out, there were definitely points when it felt like there was no end in sight," she said.
A vacationing Victoria Prince, who was trying to make her way with friends to Edmonton, sent an email to the CBC Calgary newsroom at 8:50 p.m. Tuesday that expressed her frustration.
"We have been stuck on #1 for over 9 hours … there hasn't been any word to what is going on. There are people with kids who had to turn of their vehicles! It is crazy. No RCMP have been around to say what is going to happen. This is crazy!" it read
And social media was flooded with angry messages from stranded motorists.
Alberta RCMP had five to seven members patrolling mostly on foot along that stretch of highway to check on vehicles and direct them to move, traffic services spokesperson Const. Mike Hibbs told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday morning.
He said people stranded in the biggest jam, by Lac des Arcs, may not have seen officers. He said the stretch looked like a parking lot and was too narrow to easily turn cars around.
"It was so congested in that area, it took awhile for members while moving the vehicles out to get to that location," Hibbs said. "We did eventually reach there and get everybody out safely."
Alberta Transportation's traveller information service, @511Alberta, sent out 35 tweets related to the Highway 1 situation between 8:33 p.m. Monday and 10:59 a.m. Wednesday.
The first tweet Monday evening suggested travel along Highway 1 through Banff was not recommended due to poor winter driving conditions.
But six hours later, at 2:46 a.m., @511Alberta tweeted that drivers should prepare for winter driving conditions and adjust driving habits accordingly.
By 11:16 a.m., Tuesday, @511Alberta reiterated an advisory from RCMP in Cochrane that travellers should avoid Highway 1 due to winter driving conditions.
At 1:04 p.m., @511Alberta tweeted that motorists should expect major delays and heavy traffic volumes, but there was no mention of traffic not moving or people already stuck, waiting in line.
At 3:23 p.m., @511Alberta tweeted "tow trucks working on multiple scenes for vehicle recovery," and that travel was not recommended.
The highway's official closure "due to extreme weather conditions" was tweeted at 4:30 p.m. with no estimated time of opening.
At 5:30 p.m., a tweet suggested eastbound traffic would reopen in 60 to 90 minutes, but the westbound lanes were open.
At 8:05 p.m., the eastbound lanes reopened with traffic moving very slowly.
By 8:18 p.m., @511Alberta tweeted out to people who might be in life-threatening danger, urging them to call 911 for emergencies or local RCMP detachments for non-emergency calls.
For the next three hours, traffic was said to be moving but very slowly.
By 11:14 p.m. the highway was shut down in both directions at Lac des Arcs.
Less than an hour later, at 12:11 a.m. Wednesday, traffic was moving slowly, alternating between eastbound and westbound traffic.
At 1:01 a.m., the first reference to stranded motorists was made with a message about the Canmore Fire Department and Alberta Transportation contractors working together to help stranded motorists.
At 2:23 a.m. westbound traffic was being "evacuated" by RCMP in a controlled manner with passenger vehicles as a priority.
At 2:29 a.m., @511Alberta retweeted @ABTranscomm (Alberta Transportation) that RCMP are approaching vehicles on Highway 1 and drivers are being asked to follow directions of emergency services personnel to ensure a safe, orderly evacuation without further delays.
The next update came at 6:21 a.m., with news of the reopening of the westbound lanes and there was no estimate for the reopening of the eastbound lanes.
By 10:59 a.m., a tweet from @511Alberta said the eastbound lanes were open and that motorists should expect delays due to volume.
Kimberley Day was ensnarled in the epic traffic jam for 15½ hours — from 12:30 p.m. Tuesday to 4 a.m. Wednesday. She missed her flight home to Ottawa, but eventually made it back Wednesday evening.
She was frustrated to hear RCMP blame motorists who got trapped on the Trans-Canada. Day said the information from @511Alberta needed to improve to better reflect the reality and severity of what was unfolding on the highway.
"If you look through the timeline of the tweets from @511Alberta they were just saying to expect delays. It wasn't until much later that they said, 'Please don't go on the roads' and by then, so many of us were on the roads already that it was too late," said Day.
"Had they sort of said, right at the beginning, 'there's a tractor-trailer, the highway is completely stopped, do not go on the roads, it is dangerous,' I think that warning would have prevented people from getting on the roads," said Day.
"The warnings need to come sooner if there is any risk people are going to get stuck."
Government promising review
Alberta Transportation said "the maintenance response" to the weather event will be reviewed along with "an assessment of communications through 511, in conjunction with our Emergency Management Program," said spokesperson Anna Neale.
"We understand how difficult this situation was for drivers. Like most weather events, this was a very fluid situation across the region. 511 Alberta is updated frequently, in real time, as weather and road conditions change. 511 operators were actively responding with the best information they had available as this situation evolved," she said in an email to CBC News.
"They were communicating across multiple platforms throughout this event well into the morning, including the website, via email, telephone (including call backs to drivers who reached out to 511) and Twitter. They were also in contact with maintenance contractors on the ground to continue to provide updated information," said Neale.
She said the government wants to hear from people affected by the closure.
"If Albertans have concerns, they are encouraged to share them with Alberta Transportation," she wrote.
Day said some of the tweets from 511 were misleading when they suggested a contractor had just said that traffic is moving again. In reality, Day said it took at least six hours before they started to inch along the highway.
She also said the online maps showing highways in good or fair condition were out of date.
She said some of the most valuable information came from other drivers ahead of her who were passing on information from what they could see ahead of them, and they also shared travel tips once they made it out of the traffic jam.
Truckers ticked off too
Several truckers who were also stranded say they were also left in the dark as to when traffic would start moving again.
"No idea, nobody is telling you anything," said Wayne Reicker on Wednesday morning. He was stuck in the long line of traffic for nine hours.
"We're paid by the mile. If we don't move, we don't get paid," said Radek Honjo, another trucker who was trying to make his way back to Calgary.
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Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.