The highway was closed for 10 hours as officials worked through New Year's Eve to free the drivers from their trapped vehicles

By Joelle Goldstein
January 02, 2020 02:08 PM
Snowplow removing tumbleweed near Richland, Washington, on Dec. 31, 2019
| Credit: Chris Thorson/AP/Shutterstock

Multiple drivers in Washington state spent New Year’s Eve on a highway, trapped by a massive tumbleweed pileup.

It took more than 10 hours for the five cars and one semi-truck — all of which were all entangled by the sharp weeds on Highway 240 in Benton County near Yakima — to be rescued by officials, Washington State Patrol Trooper Chris Thorson tells PEOPLE.

No one was hurt during the incident, which occurred on Tuesday night around 6:30 p.m. Pacific time.

Officers responded to the scene after receiving multiple 911 calls from motorists who reported that they were trapped on the highway, completely blocked by tumbleweeds that had reached 20 to 30 feet high.

“They keep compacting and get really heavy and thick and they’re hard to move and you can’t just touch them with your bare hands,” Thorson explains, adding that tumbleweeds are “very prickly and sharp” and require wearing gloves to move them.

The highway was closed for 10 hours as authorities worked to free the passengers, most of whom Thorson says were unhappy, scared, and frustrated to be ringing in the new year at midnight from their vehicles.

Credit: Chris Thorson/AP/Shutterstock
A semi-truck in the tumbleweeds
| Credit: Chris Thorson/AP/Shutterstock

The State Department of Transportation was also dispatched to the scene, bringing two snowplows to help with the rescue efforts. Pulling weeds from the cars was a tedious process, according to Thorson.

“Here’s the problem: Snowplows usually go down the highway at 50-60 MPH and that’s how they move snow,” he explains. “But when they come into a tumbleweed area, where families and cars are stuck in the road, you can’t just plow through the tumbleweeds.”

“There’s people in there, so it was very time-consuming because the snowplow could only move about 5 MPH when it gets up to a car full of people,” he added.

Thorson believes the incident was caused by a combination of high winds — gusts reached up to 40 to 50 MPH that night — the massive amount of tumbleweeds, and the location — the highway was located in a small area between two hills. Drivers also had to slow down and stop due to low visibility.

“The drivers had gone into this little area on the highway and they could no longer see the pavement so they slowed down or stopped because it’s not safe to continue anymore,” he says. “Once they stopped, the car gets completely engulfed and then they’re gone. You can’t see the cars.”

And though Thorson has worked as a state trooper for more than 20 years in the area that is accustomed to high winds and tumbleweeds, he says this is the first time he’s ever witnessed such an unbelievable sight.

“I was in disbelief,” he recalls. “Even though we’re used to high winds and tumbleweeds here, I’ve never seen cars encased and trapped in tumbleweeds ever.”

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Due to the area’s remoteness and weather conditions, Thorson says it’s unlikely authorities will be able to prevent this from happening again.

“It’s just a natural occurrence. There would be absolutely no way to stop it from occurring again, it’s impossible,” he says. “It was a phenomenon. That’s why the story is going so crazy.”