SISSETON, SD -- Authorities launched a massive rescue operation early Thursday after a ground blizzard stranded more than 150 vehicles overnight on Interstate 29 in northeast South Dakota's Roberts County.
There were no immediate reports of injuries, but Codington County Search and Rescue spokesman Pat Culhane told KWAT radio that some motorists were reporting dire conditions.
"Mothers with 9-month-old babes, young couples with children running on red or out of gas, vehicles stalled," he said. "There's five-foot drifts . with vehicles stuck in them, mostly semis."
Culhane said five rescue vehicles were sent out, including a snow cat, a large closed-cab machine that runs on tracks, similar to a military tank. Rescued motorists were being taken to a casino at Sisseton, a rest area at Wilmot and the Coffee Cup truck stop in Summit, he said. At least 50 had been rescued by dawn.
Roberts County Sheriff Jay Tasa was part of the rescue crew and did not immediately return a message The Associated Press left with a police dispatcher. County Emergency Management Director Jim Pearson was stranded on another highway in the area.
"The winds are blowing 40 (mph) in this area . it's just been nonstop," he told KWAT via cell phone. "I've been running (his vehicle) every hour for about 10 minutes, and I've got a survival kit here, so I'm doing fine.
"I guess we're more worried about the people on the interstate," he said.
Janet Eastman, who works at the Coffee Cup truck stop in Summit, said the stretch of interstate is roughly 16 miles, between the towns of Peever and Summit.
"It's just a valley that you have to go down into, and the snow just blows across there and packs in," she said. "This happens every now and then. Summit has its own weather system."
Eastman said many northbound truck drivers gathered at the truck stop late Wednesday and were still there Thursday.
"Our lot is full of semis," she said. "The interstate is impassable."
The state Department of Transportation closed the interstate from Watertown to the North Dakota border early Thursday. Eastman said people in the area are frustrated that it wasn't done sooner.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)