Image: Pile-up in Washington state
LARRY STEAGALL  /  AP
Tom Tompkins walks home after leaving his vehicle on the side of a icy Highway 303 and Nels Nelson Road on Washington state's Kitsap Peninsula on Tuesday. The chains he had for his truck were the wrong size. Around 30 vehicles were on the shoulder.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/23/2010 7:18:36 PM ET 2010-11-24T00:18:36

A ferocious storm that crippled much of the Pacific Northwest barreled into the Rockies on Tuesday, threatening blizzard and whiteout conditions on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for Utah, where officials told holiday travelers in the northern part of the state to get out of town now or risk being stranded on Thanksgiving.

At least three deaths in Washington state have been blamed on the storm, including a man struck and killed outside his car Monday night on snowy Interstate 5 in Tacoma. Officials in Portland, Ore., also were investigating whether a man whose body was found along the Willamette River died from the cold. Statewide, troopers responded to 1,557 collisions and 1,274 disabled vehicles, according to NBC station KING 5 News.

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Thanksgiving travel was dicey throughout the region with many highways too dangerous to drive. In Seattle, icy roads kept airline crews from getting to the airport, and people who missed their flights because of the dangerous drive were trying to rebook on already crowded flights.

The weather service said 2.5 inches of snow fell at the airport Monday, breaking the old record for the date of 1.5 inches in 1977.

The tiny central Washington town of Waterville became a refuge when the blizzard blasted across the scattered wheat fields and sagebrush along U.S. Highway 2.

"We got sideways snow. We've got snow that's going up, stuck up under things. Snow is everywhere, because it's been so windy," Dave Lundgren, owner of the Waterville Historic Hotel, said Tuesday. "We're definitely going to be looking for inside things to do."

Even cold-hardened Alaskans were complaining about the weather, with freezing rain making travel hazardous if not impossible. Fairbanks was among the hardest-hit; schools closed and most government agencies and military bases told nonessential workers to stay home.

"I don't think the roads can get much worse," said David Gibbs, emergency operations director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

Andy Haner, a weather service meteorologist in Seattle, said the storm blew down from Alaska before turning toward the Northern Rockies.

"Sometimes we call them 'inside sliders' because they slide down the Inside Passage from Alaska," he said.

Image: Baggage pile-up at SeaTac Airport
Peter Haley  /  AP
Jeannie Smith of Utah looks for her bag at the SouthWest Airlines baggage claim at SeaTac Airport on Tuesday.

Citrus growers in California's San Joaquin Valley prepared to fight off crop-damaging frost as a cold front moves into the region.

The storm is expected to reach the Salt Lake City area during the evening commute. The Utah Department of Transportation closed Interstate 84 at the Idaho border, and is warning commute times in the state's urban areas could quadruple.

That's what happened Monday night in Washington. Slick roads, blowing snow and temperatures in the mid-20s turned the evening commute in Seattle and nearby cities into an hours-long crawl. Some motorists gave up after being stuck for five hours or more and returned to their offices or just left their cars at the side of the road. Seattle's Metro Transit reported that 200 buses were stranded during the storm, according to KING 5.

Winds gusting to 65 mph made matters worst by cutting off power for tens of thousands of utility customers in Western Washington. Puget Sound Energy says it's doing all it can to restore electricity to tens of thousands of customers who lost power in the Monday night storm, but some could still be in the cold and dark on Thanksgiving.

Spokane and Eastern Washington were hit with even stronger winds and colder temperatures, staying well below zero overnight.

Tuesday dawned bright, sunny and cold over much of the state as crews hurried to plow and deice roads. Most schools closed, including the University of Washington's three campuses.

Annie Wicken, an employee at a Seattle supermarket, said her boss practically begged her to make the hours-long, multi-bus journey to work.

"I hope people will still try to shop and get their Thanksgiving stuff," she said while waiting at a bus stop.

Emergency shelters opened throughout the region to warm the homeless. In Olympia, the Volunteer Center of Lewis, Mason, and Thurston Counties scrambled to find people with four-wheel-drive vehicles to deliver more than 400 Thanksgiving meals to homebound seniors.

"We feel like these people get shortchanged enough in life. We're bringing them a meal no matter what happens," said the center's Emma Margraf.

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Two people were killed Monday when their car slid on a snowy road at Cowiche near Yakima and collided with another car, the Washington State Patrol said. Another man died when he was struck outside his car Monday night on snowy Interstate 5 in Tacoma.

The patrol Tuesday launched a plane equipped with a heat-seeking camera to look for stranded motorists from Seattle south to Olympia.

Much of Northwest will get a cold but brief break to dig out and maybe brave travel for the Thanksgiving holiday before more snow that could arrive by Wednesday night.

Associated Press writers Phuong Le and Donna Gordon Blankinship in Seattle, Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane, Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Brock Vergakis in Salt Lake City and Mary Pemberton in Anchorage contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Weather woes move across Rockies

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