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Inspectors to study I-85 stretch that turned slick, deadly

State inspectors are looking at a stretch of Interstate 85 with drainage issues that turned one southbound lane into a sheet of ice early Sunday, contributing to crashes that killed a Gastonia limousine driver and sent a woman to the hospital.

The two crashes happened on a Gaston County section of the highway that had become saturated with water during storms last week, said Jordan-Ashley Baker, an N.C. Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

THE PROBLEM

Last week’s rain saturated ground beneath I-85 near mile marker 24. Drainage in that section is poor, and the N.C. Highway Patrol said water likely seeped up through cracks in the road – even though it wasn’t raining.

With nowhere to go, the water pooled on the highway. Then the temperature dropped below freezing.

That caused the roadway to become icy in an area as long as two football fields, authorities said.

THE WARNINGS

At least two drivers called 911 reporting roads that were dry suddenly turned icy – troubling because no precipitation was falling.

“This is just kind of a warning,” a man told a 911 dispatcher. “There is some black ice that just sneaks up on you ... ”

Half an hour later, a woman called 911 reporting the same issue in the same area.

“I don’t know if it was just wet or if it was black ice, but I got sideways in the road,” the woman told the dispatcher. “ ... I almost lost it. I don’t want someone else to do it.”

THE CRASHES

Around 2:30 a.m. Sunday, a half hour after the second 911 call, Berhane Gebretsadik was driving on I-85 South near Belmont Avenue when he lost control of his car after hitting the icy patch, investigators say.

His 2008 Lincoln Town Car struck a tree and caught fire. Gebretsadik died in the crash.

Both excessive speed and the ice contributed to the crash, said Highway Patrol Trooper Jonathan Beam. “He wouldn’t have run off the road just because he was traveling fast,” Beam said. “But once he hit the ice he lost control.”

Authorities sent an officer out to check for icy patches on the road after the calls, Baker said. But the officer couldn’t locate the ice slick.

Around 7 a.m., a woman was involved in a similar crash in the same stretch. Her injuries were not life-threatening.

WHAT’S NEXT

After Sunday’s crashes, DOT workers treated the area twice with salt to melt the ice and sand to increase traction. They also checked for other icy patches, and returned five hours later to deal with ice again.

Now DOT is collecting crash data and analyzing the road to see what changes can be made. No timeline has been set for repairs.

“We’ll see if there is there a change that we can make on this road that could be beneficial,” Baker said.

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