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High wind, icy Minnesota roads sent semitrucks sailing

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A semitruck is jackknifed on Interstate 94 around the St. Cloud area.
A semitruck is jackknifed on Interstate 94 in the St. Cloud area in central Minnesota on Thursday.
Courtesy of Minnesota State Patrol

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz declared a state of emergency Thursday evening, ordering the National Guard to help stranded motorists across the state.

The high winds and ice led to hundreds of crashes and spinouts. Semi drivers had a particularly rough go of it.

Mike Barsness of Cannon Falls, Minn., was headed to work in the Twin Cities during the storm. He crept slowly northward along Highway 52.

"I think it's 25-mile stretch, there was probably 40 vehicles I saw in the ditch. We'd be in the right lane, they'd go flying by in the left lane. And a mile or two down the road, we'd seen them in the ditch," Barsness said.

Many of those vehicles were semitrucks; at least one was jackknifed. Across the state, the Minnesota State Patrol reported 31 jackknifed tractor-trailers Thursday morning.

Sgt. Jesse Grabow with the State Patrol has plied his cruiser over the highways of western Minnesota for more than two decades. He's seen his share of bad weather and the consequences for drivers who think they can outwit it.

Speaking from his squad car near the scene of a semi stuck on Interstate 94 Thursday afternoon, Grabow said in all his years, he's never seen this many jackknifed tractor-trailers.

"A number of those are generally involving empty trailers or very light loads, and they're just big wind catchers for the most part. There's just an extreme amount of jackknifed semis," the state trooper said.

Bill Collins is an experienced over-the-road trucker and owns Interstate Truck Driving School in South St. Paul. Collins said wind on the open road spells trouble — particularly for drivers who aren't carrying much weight.

"A flatbed trailer with a load of steel pipe on it can drive through just about any sort of conditions reasonably. Whereas a high cube van with, let's say, potato chips in it, I wouldn't want to go out in anything past 35 miles an hour in that," he said.

Because drivers are paid by the mile, Collins said many try to press on through dangerous weather. But he said the risk is too great.

"I've canceled trips because of weather conditions. I watch it very closely. I'm not going to take chances. And that's the key," he said. "A good truck driver does that, plans, looks at what the conditions are and makes wise choices ahead of time."