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South Dakota DOT closes I-29 north of Watetown, stranding travelers

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By Mike Nowatzki

The Forum of Fargo/Moorhead

SISSETON, S.D. – The South Dakota Department of Transportation has closed Interstate 29 from Watertown to the North Dakota border, stranding the UND hockey team and many of its fans on their way back from the weekend series in Omaha, Neb.

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"They watched the highway being closed right in front of them,” Jayson Hajdu, UND assistant athletic director, said of the team.

Snow and strong winds were combining to create snow-packed and slippery roads, with sometimes heavy drifting and near-zero visibility, according to the DOT.

The UND hockey team attempted to drive back to Grand Forks on Saturday night but had to pull off I-29 at a truck stop near Summit, S.D., Hajdu said. The team spent the night in the bus, hoping to wait out the storm, and tried to leave again this morning but didn’t make it to the border. They planned to check into hotel rooms in Sisseton, he said.

“They’re going to stay there until they get the go-ahead,” Hajdu said.

A student fan bus carrying 54 members of the “NoDak Nation” also made it through Watertown before deteriorating conditions forced the bus to pull off at a gas station near Summit at about 3 a.m., said UND Athletics Marketing Director David Primus, who rode on the bus.

Local residents offered to open Summit’s Community Hall to the students, and by 5:30 a.m. they were hunkered down in the gymnasium, Primus said.

By noon, Summit residents were cooking up barbecued pork and beans for the UND refugees.

“This is pretty awesome,” Primus said. “It’s one of those things you read about when people get stranded, but their community just showed up and started cooking food for us.”

Many of the students had brought blankets and pillows for the long bus trip, and their Summit hosts laid out padded gymnastics mats for them to sleep on, Primus said.

Primus estimated between 5,000 and 7,000 UND fans attended the weekend series in Omaha, with seven or eight fan buses making the trip from different parts of North Dakota.

Based on the forecast, he said “there’s almost no shot that we’ll be leaving today.”

“I think we’ll be fine,” he said. “Everybody seems to be in good spirits. We’ll ride this sucker out and get back to Grand Forks when we can.”

South Dakota authorities responded to a number of stranded vehicles in the stretch of I-29 between Watertown and the border, including “quite a few” on a hill near the Wilmot, S.D., exit, said Kathy Redbay, a dispatcher with the Roberts County Sheriff’s Office in Sisseton.

“We’ve got wreckers out there right now and highway patrol and county officers. They’re all out there,” she said just before 11 a.m.

A tour bus that hit the ditch was pulled out and able to make it to nearby Summit, S.D., she said.

Snowfall in the parking lot outside the sheriff’s office already measured 8 inches at 5 a.m., and by 11 a.m. the wind was “starting to blow pretty good,” Redbay said.

“You can barely see at all,” she said.

There were no reports of serious injury accidents, she said.

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