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January 24, 2016 10:00 PM, EST
Hundreds of Truckers Were Stranded at W.Va. Rest Stop
Inside the Beckley, W.Va., Travel Plaza the afternoon of Jan. 23, truckers stood around drinking coffee, trading battle stories of past adventures driving the big rigs.

There were stories of being stuck in flooding in the south, snowstorms in the Rockies, running low on gas coming through the desert and horror tales of “rollerskaters,” motorists driving four-wheel vehicles.

”They think the road belongs to them,” said one trucker of “rollerskaters.”

But there was another gripe on the truckers’ mind Jan. 23, their unofficial axiom: If your wheels ain’t turning, you ain’t making money. With portions of Interstates 77 and 79 closed and West Virginia under a state of emergency, wheels were not turning.

Hundreds of truckers were parked at the travel plaza the last couple of days as Winter Storm Jonas bombarded the region with more than a foot of snow in two days. The truckers were restless, antsy and ready to hit the interstate to deliver their haul to destinations from the East Coast to the Midwest.

While many were not happy with being stranded, they knew of the consequences. Between 150 and 200 tractor-trailers were stuck on Interstate 77 north of Charleston the night of Jan. 22, causing a portion of the highway to close for several hours.

”I want to get back on the road, but it’s safety first,” said James Hudgins, who was hauling tons of frozen food from Virginia Beach, Va., to Seymour, Ind.

Hudgins said independent truckers lose money when stranded by bad weather because they don’t meet their delivery target. Many agreements have clauses, docking them for missing a delivery time.

Not only does bad weather cause them to stop moving, it often slows truckers down to about 35 miles per hour in mountainous areas such as southern West Virginia.

”Thirty-five, it’s slow and easy,” said another trucker, Patrick Miles, who was on a short run transporting chemicals from Roanoke, Va., to Charleston before becoming stranded in Beckley.

”True,” agreed Hudgins.

Miles said the weather was bad when he left Roanoke Jan. 22, but he thought since it was less than a 200-mile trip, he could make it. Not so. A trip that normally takes three hours was going on 20 hours around 1 p.m. Jan. 23.

”Safety is always a factor,” Miles said.

Standing nearby, shaking his head in agreement, was Kosta Ustazalkov, a driver for Ashley Furniture Co. Ustazalkov, who lives in Wisconsin, was a few hours shy of his North Carolina destination when he pulled into the Beckley Plaza Center the night of Jan. 21 for food and rest. When he woke up the morning of Jan. 22, he knew his 18 wheels would not be turning.

”Park it and wait until everything is over,” he said.

Ustazalkov, who has 14 years of experience driving a truck, said every winter storm is different. To determine whether to stay or pull out, he depends on weather-related websites and other truckers who just came from his destination area.

”I don’t want to take any chances,” said Ustazalkov.

The West Virginia Turnpike Authority reported numerous accidents closer to Charleston, but said Beckley had two minor crashes with no injuries. At no time, an operations employee said, were the interstate’s turnaround spots used, as they were not needed.

The Turnpike Authority installed four gates along the 88-mile toll road after the 2009 storm that stranded motorists all along the highway for 18 hours or more. The gates allow motorists to make U-turns and head back in the direction of their origin.

Across the region, 911 dispatchers reported only minor accidents, mainly off the road or minor fender benders, with minor injuries.

“I guess people listened when we said stay home, don’t go out if you don’t need to,” a dispatcher in Summers County said.