In a 1984 blizzard, 4 trapped motorists died on this Fargo road. City officials haven't forgotten.
FARGO — Windblown snow made it so hard for drivers to see on 19th Avenue North that city officials on Thursday, Jan. 11, closed part of the road, which is vulnerable to wind and snowdrifts.
The closure between Dakota Drive and 18th Street lasted from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. It was a stark reminder of a blizzard in February 1984 that killed 23 people in North Dakota and Minnesota, four of whom died on that particular stretch of road.
The four victims were stranded on 19th Avenue North while coming home from West Acres Shopping Center. Six-foot drifts moved in as they waited out the storm, blocking the car's muffler and causing carbon monoxide poisoning in all of them. The victims were Robert Hughes, 50, Bradley Hughes, 13, Dean Stansfield, 14, and Charles Royce, 13.
On Thursday, Fargo Public Works Director Ben Dow recalled the deadly episode.
"It was really nice earlier in the day, and people weren't prepared for it. When the streets department decided to close 19th Avenue North, they were 99 percent sure that no one was in there, but they didn't realize the car load of folks was already stuck somewhere in the middle," Dow said.
In the years following the winter tragedy, Fargo residents argued whether it was the fault of the city for failing to administer fair warning, or the driver's negligence. Because extreme precaution was not taken by the driver, and the road was not yet blocked when he reached it, a horrible accident ensued, but Fargo has learned from it.
Dow explained that protocol has completely changed since then. "We will not hesitate to close the roads if the conditions seem dangerous. The loss of a travel route is nothing compared to the loss of a life."
To protect motorists, the city has since installed snow gates to close off the road in low-visibility weather, flashing lights to warn drivers, along with vegetation and snow screens to help block wind and snow from the road.
Mark Williams, manager of public works services, said, "Before we close 19th (or any road), we'll take our plows down and make sure there aren't any cars stuck before we block it off." Dow also noted that crews check the road periodically while it's closed just to be sure no one is stranded or trying to get through.
During the season of road closures, temperature drops and high wind speeds, Fargo residents are reminded to take weather alerts seriously and to delay traveling when it is dangerous.
As an added precaution, motorists are advised to keep an emergency kit in their cars. When stranded, it is ideal to remain in your vehicle but to keep it turned off unless you are certain the exhaust pipe is free of blockage.