NewsLocal News


Drivers question closing Big Cottonwood Canyon during peak travel time to remove crash vehicles

Posted at 9:30 PM, Jan 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-26 11:59:12-05

It’s no secret that you can experience some heavy traffic delays when venturing into both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon. Some traffic congestion can be blamed on crashes, others can be blamed on avalanches or mitigation work. However, those stuck in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Sunday evening aren’t sure if the delays were necessary after sitting in a previous delay for a crash.

The canyon was closed for nearly five hours between two closures stemming from a single crash. Utah Department of Transportation, Unified Police and Unified Fire Authority responded to a head-on crash that involved some creative rescue and medical transport techniques due to both vehicles being down a steep, snowy embankment. After being closed for hours on a busy Sunday afternoon, some vehicles were allowed down the canyon before the roadway was closed a second time.

“At that point, I think a lot of us were getting a bit frustrated of why couldn’t that wait until people had left the canyon,” said Teneille Brown, who was in the canyon with her family. “I think people can be pretty patient when they know someone’s life is on the line, but when it was just poor planning, they didn’t even consider all of the people who might need to go to work, who maybe had dogs at home who needed to be let out or fed, like that was not necessary.”

To make matters worse for Brown, when traffic resumed after more than four hours of a standstill, her car's battery had died and they had to depend on a good Samaritan for a jump-start.

“Every time I drive up now, I’m going to have on the back of my mind the possibility of being stuck up there for five hours,” said Tate Aronstein, who was stuck in Big Cottonwood Canyon after spending a day on the slopes at Solitude with friends. “It was unclear why two cars that were not impacting traffic were a more significant priority than a thousand people idling on the road for three hours.”

At first, it was believed on Sunday night that one of the vehicles involved in the crash may have been contaminating the watershed area. However, it was confirmed by Salt Lake City Public Utilities to FOX 13 on Monday that no contamination had been detected.

“The incident responders are usually very aware of the water resource issues and the public health issues related to the contamination of the resource,” said Laura Briefer, the director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities.

Briefer acknowledged the complexities of Sunday’s incident and mentioned they never had dealt with an incident with these factors before.

“I think in the future what would be super helpful would be some additional communication between all of the partners," she said. "UDOT, Unified Police, the ski resorts, just to make sure we don’t have a situation like this in the future and we can really assess the risks and tradeoffs a lot better.”

Briefer says that SLC Public Utilities, which manages the watershed area, didn’t receive solid communication on the incident for a few hours. Since the area impacted was relatively close to the Big Cottonwood Canyon water treatment facility, they bypassed the water around the treatment center in order to prevent it from getting into drinking water.

“This was an unusual and difficult situation,” Briefer said.

According to Unified Police, the driver of the truck who was involved in the two-vehicle crash, was also stopped for speeding in Big Cottonwood Canyon earlier in the day. UPD is expecting to remove the citation given for the crash and pursue reckless driving charges after hearing from witnesses and seeing video evidence.