OAKLAND — If you look to your right as you travel approximately a mile north of the Oakland-Promise Land Volunteer Fire Department building on AR Highway 5 North, you might see a small circle showing where a fire was built. The improvised fire pit and several red Solo cups are the physical reminders of a dangerous situation that played out on the highway Tuesday night.
At approximately 6:41 p.m. that night, 911 personnel dispatched emergency responders, including firefighters, state police and ambulance crews to a vehicle crash. The report came out that a man, a woman, and two infants were trapped inside a van that was on its roof.
Fortunately for them, a passerby was able to break out a window and get the people out to a waiting vehicle to warm up as sleet and freezing rain continued to fall, making the already slick road worse.
Oakland fire chief Lucy Soltysik responded along with five other firefighters from her department. They would eventually be joined a Baxter County deputy, a state police trooper, two Baxter Regional Medical Center ambulances and crews, personnel from the Midway Volunteer Fire Department and a host of tow trucks.
What had been one vehicle overturned soon blossomed into a big problem. The slick road caused six other vehicles to slide off into the ditch, eventually blocking the road. Three tractor trailers jackknifed, further intensifying the problem.
What Soltysik and other emergency personnel desperately needed was a truck to spread salt or other material and make the road safe not only for vehicle traffic but for emergency personnel who couldn't walk on the highway without sliding.
One of the fire trucks slid off the road. The deputy's patrol car slid off the road. Only one thing could help solve the problem, clear the road of the slick precipitation.
The call for help made to the state
Soltysik said she knew they needed a truck to clear the road. She called the 911 center and asked them to ask the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department to send a truck to salt or sand the road so emergency personnel could clear the road.
"Dispatch told me they would get them on the phone," Soltysik said of the AHTD. "The state trooper when I talked to him about it, he told me they're not going to send a salt truck. I was just flabbergasted. Then, a couple hours later, he said it was on its way."
As emergency personnel waited for the truck, the decision was made to shut the highway down. Firefighters blocked the highway both north and south at places where motorist could safely turn around. Those motorists already stopped inside the blockaded area were now stuck, waiting alongside emergency personnel.
"There were 10 men, three women and six children who were stranded there. They asked if they could build a bonfire," Soltysik said. "I told them sure they could. So, they cut down some trees, made a bonfire and actually cooked some hot chocolate. The little ones had a blast running around but we were very worried about them."
The situation was dangerous enough Soltysik asked for Baxter County to send a truck to salt the road, even though it is a state highway and AHTD is responsible for such work. Baxter County Road and Bridge Department Superintendent Chris Huett sent a truck to help. Soltysik also had a citizen who lives nearby call state Representative Nelda Speaks to see if Speaks could exert influence and get state help headed their way.
Speaks gets the call
Speaks took the call from the citizen. She said while she has taken calls about poor road conditions during winter weather in the past, Tuesday night's call was the first one she'd taken that involved an emergency situation.
"It was my understanding from the phone call that state highway department was not going to go up there," Speaks said of the call she received. "So, I did get on the phone and I got ahold of someone. They told me they had a state trooper there," said Speaks. "They told me they had two trucks going up there to take care of it."
Speaks was not able to contact anyone at the AHTD and instead was able to speak to a high-ranking official with the Arkansas State Police.
"He assured me a state trooper was there and that they had two trucks on their way," Speaks said. "When I later called my contact, they said the truck had arrived."
The situation angered Speaks, angered her enough to spur her into action. Now, Speaks says should she get a similar call, she has a good contact number for the state police. She still lacks a good contact number for AHTD, a situation she says she intends to remedy.
"As soon as the weather clears, I intend to get good contact numbers and find out why we are not getting Highway 5 North taken care of," said Speaks. "I think it's a shame you've got people going through what those people went through last light. That's a shame. That was a very scary thing that happened last night."
Speaks said she plans to initiate a meeting with relevant officials to prevent a recurrence of Tuesday night's situation, one she called dangerous and unnecessary.
Why Baxter County didn't plow the highway
Baxter County Judge Mickey Pendergrass said the law allows him to maintain any road, city, state or county, in the county he wishes. However, Pendergrass said the county has a good working relationship with Baxter County towns and the state when it comes to roads and that they generally back each other up.
On Tuesday night, Pendergrass said they got a request to plow Highway 5 North.
"When we get a call from the sheriff's department, or from fire departments, to clear a road, we respond to that request," said Pendergrass. "The problem is, we don't know where our trucks are when we get the request. They may have to go pick up a load of material before they go. In the particular location where the accident occurred on Highway 5 last night, if we had a truck at the shop, it would take us 30 minutes to get there at a minimum."
While Pendergrass can make the decision, Huett made the decision Tuesday night to send help, according to Pendergrass who says when that is the case, he's notified and Huett understands if Pendergrass doesn't reply, the decision is approved by Pendergrass.
"The biggest problem we have with reacting is time," said Pendergrass. "With this kind of weather we have to deal with the consequences."
By the time the Baxter County truck arrived on the scene of accident, the state truck had arrived.
AHTD policy on helping in an emergency
In Baxter County, AHTD has set U.S. Highway 62 as the most important road to plow during inclement weather. Highway 5 is in the second tier of state roads to receive attention.
The AHTD will entertain requests for help in emergency situations, according to assistant district maintenance engineer Bobby Keeton. Policy guidelines dictate when such help can be offered, Keeton said.
"I'm looking at general notes for procedures in the District 9's snow and ice operations policy which was updated November 2015," Keeton recited. "Response to requests from law enforcement and emergency crews on 'B' and 'C' routes will have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Requests will be handled as long as it doesn't compromise our status on 'A" routes."
Since U.S. Highway 62 is the only 'A' route in Baxter County, it receives attention first. The highway runs for 27 miles through the county and has 127-lane miles, Keeton said. A route such as U.S. 62 is considered serviceable by AHTD if at least one lane in each direction is serviceable. The department had six trucks working Tuesday night.
"As far as what happened up on Highway 5 North last night, I can't speak to that as I didn't receive a phone about it," Keeton said, noting he hadn't heard who, if anyone, might have received a call.