An on-again, off-again snowstorm Saturday put Juneau motorists between a rock and a cold berm.
At 8 a.m., skies were clear and streets were dry, with the temperature downtown a balmy 40 degrees. But by 10 a.m., several inches of new snow had fallen and the mercury had plummeted to 34. Under these near-freezing conditions, streets such as Main, Gold and Wickersham downtown and Cordova Avenue in West Juneau became unofficial ice rinks. Vehicles all over town were spinning in unintentional 180-degree turns and inadvertently imitating amusement park bumper cars.
``It's been chaos. Hell. Purgatory,'' said Lt. Pete Bonnell of the downtown fire station.
``Call it what you will,'' Bonnell said. ``Things are about as bad as I have ever seen them.''
Before 3 p.m., the downtown fire station had responded to four accidents, a number Bonnell called ``way above normal'' for an average Saturday. Meanwhile, Capital City Fire & Rescue responded to six accidents - six above normal. And Glacier fire station responded to 10 accidents - at least twice the normal number.
``We had at least 30 calls (to 911 reporting vehicle accidents) between 7 a.m. and 5:15 p.m,'' said Juneau Police Dispatcher Sara Coyle., ``most after 9 a.m.''
``At one point the officer on Main just stood there and called them in,'' Coyle said.
Extrapolate 30 by the population of Anchorage, and you get just about 150 fender-benders - well above the 130 that Anchorage averages per resident on days when roads are very icy.
Officer Troy Wilson said the 30 calls didn't show the true number of accidents.
``There were more than 30 because, in some cases, an officer was at the scene and was calling in more than one accident - but we recorded it under one case number,'' Wilson said. He said 911 also received six reports of vehicles in ditches.
Realizing the extreme danger presented by sloping streets, police tried to closed them until they could be sanded. JPD didn't have enough officers to direct traffic in the slippery zones and DOT said it didn't have enough barricades to close them off.
DOT sanded as quickly as possible, police said, but couldn't keep up with the demand.
At 12:20 p.m. Saturday, there were three vehicles off the road in the half-mile stretch of Egan inbound near Norway Point. Simultaneously, there were four accidents along two blocks of Cordova Street in West Juneau.
Attorney Craig Black, 34, stood by his red Subaru wagon, talking to fellow driver Jeff Isturis, while waiting for his vehicle to be towed and the road sanded.
``The road was very slippery,'' Black said, ``and I saw numerous vehicles sliding down the hill (toward me). I did my spin first and then Jeff had his turn. Maybe (the vehicles) just wanted to kiss,'' he added.
Isturis, a 40-year-old fisherman, glancing at his beige Subaru locked nose-to-nose with Black's red one, said ``I should have just stayed home.''
A block uphill on the other side of Cordova, Jennifer Shaw, 31, crammed her fists deep into parka pockets as she chatted with residents shoveling the walk.
``I was just coming up the hill and doing fine,'' said Shaw, owner of Rick's Cafe, ``and then I saw a couple of vehicles sliding down. I was trying to take the left on Nowell and I just made it to safety (at the side of the road). Now I'm just waiting for some sand.''
Within an hour the street was sanded, firefighters were no longer turning motorists away and all had returned to normal.
During the morning and early afternoon, Eaglecrest Ski Area experienced difficulties with patrons' vehicles sliding off the lower part of Fish Creek Road. Dawn Chappell, Eaglecrest's base lodge manager, said ``We contacted DOT and got it taken care of; a sander came up here and swiped through.''
Bonnell said Fish Creek Road was closed for more than an hour before reopening, but ``it's still marginal and could go bad on us again any time.''
Fortunately, whiteout conditions retreated and the snow stopped falling between about noon and 2 p.m.
However, as the ceiling closed down and flurries began again in mid-afternoon, one vehicle slid into a utility pole on Gold Street and another slid into a parked vehicle. Responding officers blocked off the street with flares.