Deadly day on Iowa roads as Monday snow storm passes through

Snowy and slick conditions claim at least 6 lives

Story County Sheriff’s Office deputies and Iowa State Patrol troopers investigate a crash Monday afternoon on Interstate 35 south of Ames that grew to include more than 50 vehicles and claimed one life. (Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune)
Story County Sheriff’s Office deputies and Iowa State Patrol troopers investigate a crash Monday afternoon on Interstate 35 south of Ames that grew to include more than 50 vehicles and claimed one life. (Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune)

At least six people were killed Monday on Iowa’s slick highways, including two teenage sisters near Decorah and a bus passenger caught in a chain-reaction crash near Ames that involved more than 50 vehicles, authorities said.

After a winter with little snow, the intensity of Monday’s snowfall picked up throughout the day to the point the National Weather Service estimated that an inch an hour was accumulating in some parts of the state. And while the snowfall was predicted to end by late Monday, it also was forecast to start again Tuesday evening, dropping between 1 and 3 inches, the worst expected along or to the south of Interstate 80.

On Monday afternoon, both sides of Interstate 35 south of Ames were closed for hours after a chain reaction in the snowy southbound lanes grew and grew to claim more vehicles and victims, and the northbound lanes became access for rescue crews and tow trucks.

“In my 26 years in law enforcement, I’ve never seen a pileup of this nature or this severe,” Story County Sheriff’s Capt. Barry Thomas told the Ames Tribune. “The sheer number of vehicles that were involved in this is unlike anything that’ve I’ve ever seen.”

Thomas said three to five people were seriously injured and taken to the hospital, with many more minor injuries being reported in the crash, which occurred about 12:30 p.m.

Iowa State Patrol spokesman Sgt. Nate Ludwig said the person who died in the pileup was a passenger on a bus, but he didn’t know any other specifics.

Four members of the Vazquez family were on their way from Minneapolis to Tulsa, Okla., when they found themselves in the midst of the pileup.

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In the right lane, their car was hit from behind and drifted into the left lane, where it hit the cable barrier in the center median. Everyone came out of it uninjured, but it was a harrowing few moments. They narrowly missed being hit by a bus.

“We couldn’t slow down or anything because it was just going too fast, and then we hit the thing and the whole front side on her side smashed, the windshield was all bad,” David Vazquez said, talking about the side of the car where his mother, who was driving, was.

Without a car, the family had to book a hotel room for the night. They and about 30 others were taken to the Ames City Auditorium, where the Red Cross came to help.

City Manager Steve Schainker said the city had used the auditorium as a collecting area for apartment fire and flood victims before, but this was the first time to his knowledge that it had been used for a crash.

Earlier in the day, two Decorah teens died after their car lost control and slid into a truck.

Roads in the area were slick from ice and snow that fell the night before.

About 8:30 a.m., according to the State Patrol, Avery Arneson, 17, of Decorah, was northbound on County Road W40 when the Oldsmobile Alero she was driving crossed the centerline and began sliding sideways. Gage Dahlberg, 15, of Decorah, was heading south on the highway when the Ford F150 he was driving collided with Arneson.

Arenson and her younger sister, Aden Arenson, 13, were killed in the crash, the patrol said. Dalhberg and three others were taken to hospitals with injuries.

Hours later, Cedar Rapids police responded to a one-car crash on Interstate 380 near the Highway 30 exit that killed two people.

Shortly before 11:30 a.m., police said, a 2007 Mercury Montego struck a pillar supporting an overpass. There were three adult males in the vehicle. Two were pronounced dead at the scene and the third was transported to UnityPoint-St. Luke’s Hospital with serious injuries.

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Their names had not yet been released. Public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said that weather might have been a factor.

The department said officers responded to 44 crashes between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Monday, half of them on I-380.

The patrol’s Ludwig said state police also responded to a fatal crash near Grinnell that was believed to have been weather-related.

That crash occurred at Exit 191 on Highway 63 east of Grinnell. The identity of Vitim had not yet been released.

Lee Hermiston, Madison Arnold and Max Freund of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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