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First winter storm brings first winter crash fatality

Rescuers take off in a St. Louis County Sheriff's Office water rescue boat from a staging area on the St. Louis River in Scanlon just before 9 a.m. Friday to bring in the body of a truck driver who died after crashing his semi into the river during the winter storm. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal1 / 4
A semi truck slid off Interstate 35 and into the St. Louis River at Scanlon amid snowy conditions early Friday, killing the driver. Cloquet Area Fire District/Special to the Pine Journal2 / 4
Cloquet Area Fire District firefighters donned waterproof suits and brought out the department’s water rescue boat to help search for Chris Lucia, the driver of a semi truck that crashed in icy conditions on northbound Interstate 35 just before the bridge over the St. Louis River in Scanlon. Cloquet Area Fire District/Special to the Pine Journal3 / 4
Cloquet Area Fire District Chief Kevin Schroeder talks with firefighters involved in the water search and rescue Friday morning. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal4 / 4

A Duluth man died in the first winter storm of the season Friday when the semitrailer he was driving slid off Interstate 35 in Scanlon and ended up partly submerged in the St. Louis River below.

The accident was reported at at 4:43 a.m. Friday. The driver, identified as Christopher "Chris" Michael Lucia, 44, was found dead in the river after rescuers from numerous law enforcement and firefighting agencies came together for a search-and-rescue operation that lasted several hours.

Lucia is survived by his wife and five children. A GoFundMe page (search "Lucia Family Relief and Funeral Fund" at gofundme.com) has been established to help his family.

It was the season's first winter storm, and high winds and snow made visibility poor and roads were already slick when the semi accident occurred. The Minnesota State Patrol website labeled it "unknown" if Lucia was wearing a seat belt or if the airbag deployed in the 2018 Freightliner semi he was driving.

The truck slid off the northbound lane of I-35 just before the bridge. It landed on its side, partially submerged in the water in the median between the north- and southbound bridges, said Cloquet Area Fire District Chief Kevin Schroeder, who acted as incident commander. Witnesses called to report the accident.

Although rescuers started their search from the median area, Schroeder said they soon moved the command post to the parking lot of the River Inn upstream, for safety reasons and to allow them to call in additional resources.

The St. Louis County Sheriff's Office brought its larger water rescue boat to aid in the search while CAFD firefighters donned waterproof water rescue suits to search the river and its bank on foot that morning.

The CAFD firefighters discovered the driver's body just over two hours after the accident and walked into the water "downshore from the bridges" to get him, Schroeder said, adding that the water was too deep at that point in the river. Once the firefighters got Lucia to shore, the rescue boat picked him up.

CAFD firefighters were joined by emergency responders from Esko Volunteer Fire Department, the St. Louis County Rescue Squad as well as officers from the Cloquet Police Department, Carlton County Sheriff's Office and Minnesota State Patrol. Schroeder estimated about 30 people were involved in the efforts Friday.

Schroeder said the accident is still under investigation and there would be an autopsy. The truck was removed and I-35 reopened to traffic by noon.

"It's not the worst, but it ranks up there," Schroeder said when asked about the rescue conditions with driving snow and wind.

"It could be colder," said Carlton County Chief Deputy Brian Belich, who was assisting at the staging area.

"That's the saving grace," Schroeder agreed. "It could be below zero. The weather couldn't get any worse, but at least we can work in these temperatures."

No other vehicles were involved in the early-morning crash, Schroeder said.

A terrible day for driving

There were, however, dozens of other car crashes Friday morning, mostly fender-benders, Schroeder said. Schroeder and Belich were surprised that schools scheduled classes as usual. In Cloquet, that meant at least four minor car accidents for high school drivers in the icy conditions.

Road conditions throughout Carlton County were poor most of the day Friday. As of about 9:30 a.m., the National Weather Service reported snow totals at 7 inches in Mahtowa and 5 inches in Esko. By the end of the day, NWS reported more than 11 inches in Cloquet.

As the bulk of the snow hasn't melted and the season seems to have changed abruptly from fall to winter, driving conditions are still not ideal.

According to the Cloquet Police Department on Tuesday, there had been five reports of vehicles in ditches since last Friday, 19 reports of property damage and six personal injuries.

Over the same timeframe, the Carlton County Sheriff's Office responded to eight calls of vehicles in the ditch, three calls of motor vehicle damage due to an accident, five calls of motor vehicle accidents with injuries and two calls of assisting another agency.

Those numbers do not include Cloquet, Fond du Lac Reservation or the city of Moose Lake.

"It looks like the winter season is here for good," Cloquet Commander Derek Randall said.

After recovering from Friday's storm, residents awoke Tuesday to a light dusting on the ground, creating deceivingly greasy roads.

At 8:26 a.m. that day, officers responded to a call at the intersection of Carlton Avenue and 22nd Street for a three-vehicle crash.

According to Randall, a vehicle traveling southbound on 22nd Street failed to yield to a westbound vehicle on Carlton Avenue and crashed into it. When the westbound vehicle was hit, it was pushed into the eastbound lane and crashed head on with a vehicle.

The southbound vehicle was driven by an unidentified juvenile who also had a juvenile passenger.

One of the vehicles was towed and the other two were drivable.

The accident is under investigation, so a cause is unknown at this time.

When weather conditions deteriorate, Randall advises residents to pay attention, leave early, leave extra room between vehicles and put the cellphone down.

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