A coat of freezing rain paralyzed Wednesday’s morning commute, sent pedestrians sprawling and forced the closure of southbound lanes of the Interstate 95 bridge into New Hampshire, after three tractor-trailers slid into each other.

Erika Gilbert, a graduate student who is studying social work, said her drive to Portland from Durham at 9 a.m. Wednesday required her to remember safe-driving techniques she hadn’t needed since last winter.

“It was, ‘Am I really going to be able to stop?'” she said.

“Winter so far has been really easy. This was our first real taste of test-the-brakes, pump-the-brakes, stop-before-you-really-have-to-stop-typedriving,” she said.

Officially, winter began at 12:30 a.m. today. This fall, which included the warmest November on record in Portland, did little to get us ready for Wednesday’s wintry mess.

Dozens of minor accidents made it a busy day for auto body shops throughout southern Maine.

At the Acme Body Shop on Lincoln Street in South Portland, shop manager York Stephens said seven cars had to be towed in.

Three had been destroyed. The others, with varying degrees of body damage, were repairable. None of the drivers was seriously injured, Stephens said.

“This (number of damaged cars) is normal for a storm in winter,” he said. During a typical week, without a storm, Acme repairs 15 to 20 vehicles.

For some people Wednesday, walking was no easier than driving.

“It was extremely icy on the sidewalks and took a lot of time,” said Judd Hume, who walked from Portland’s West End to the downtown business district. “I ended up going out in the street, which was not as icy as the sidewalk.”

At least he wasn’t trying to walk in heels.

Lauren Thomas said, “I just tried to follow the path some salt truck had made through Monument Square — sacrifice the shoes.”

On her walk to the office, she saw other walkers with their arms outstretched for balance. A couple ended up on the ground.

The timing was what made the freezing rain such a problem.

“The conditions were just right at the wrong time — right at the morning commute,” said South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins, whose department recorded about 20 crashes during the height of the morning commute, though no serious injuries.

“It was the equivalent of a bad snowstorm, maybe worse,” said Portland police Lt. Bill Preis. “There was a time where I had every single police car in the city tied up on an accident, with other accidents waiting. It was that way for a couple hours.”

“It was deceiving,” he said of the light mist. “It would freeze on the ground and the ground looked fine, but it was very, very slippery.”

The collision involving three tractor trailers, in New Hampshire just south of the I-95 bridge, forced the closing of the bridge’s southbound lanes while crews worked to clear the highway.

Eric Beauregard got caught in the resulting traffic jam. He had left home in Saco a little early for his commute to Portsmouth, where he is a branch manager for Hampshire First Bank.

“Once I got to about Wells, I got stuck on 95 south for an hour and a half — dead stop, didn’t move,” Beauregard said.

He watched as drivers turned around and drove the wrong way, half on the grass, half in the breakdown lane, until they reached a crossover.

“I ended up sneaking off the York exit, got on Route 1 and was planning to get on the bypass, but with Memorial Bridge closed (to traffic) and 95’s bridge closed, the bypass was backed up for miles with traffic trying to get on,” he said.

He ended up parking in Kittery, pulling on his L.L. Bean boots and marching across the Memorial Bridge to downtown Portsmouth.

“Usually, it takes me 40 minutes to go from Saco to Portsmouth. (Wednesday) it took me, I’d say, just under three hours.”

The weather may have played a role in a fatal crash in York County.

A woman from Limington died after crashing in Hollis at 10:30 a.m. The York County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the crash, said Tanya Hart, 41, was driving west on Hollis Road when her 1989 Oldsmobile Cutlass left the road, vaulted over a driveway and hit a 1950 Dodge truck that had been parked on the side of the road.

The cause of the crash remains under investigation.

For today, the National Weather Service is forecasting conditions more typical of this mild fall: sunny skies with temperatures in the high 40s.

But there’s still hope for a white Christmas in northern New England. Meteorologist Tom Hawley said he has his eye on a storm Friday that could bring “several inches” of snow to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

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