Blizzard closes Denver airport, 1,200 flights canceled

By Keith Coffman (Reuters) - A blizzard shut down Denver International Airport on Wednesday, canceling 1,200 flights and stranding travelers after the storm briefly knocked out power and made takeoffs and landings unsafe, airport officials said. The storm, which hit Denver early on Wednesday, caused ripple effects across the country as planes awaited clearance to depart for snowbound Denver. "We've got blowing snow out there, wet snow on the ground, icy conditions, low visibility, so we're fighting all those things," Denver airport spokesman Heath Montgomery said. Montgomery said it marked the first time the airport had been forced to shut down due to heavy weather since 2006, when Denver was blanketed with several feet of snow. The closure came one day after a suspicious package was found at the airport's main terminal, prompting a brief evacuation amid heightened security in response to deadly suicide bombings in Brussels. Montgomery said officials could not yet say when the airport would reopen, although forecasters expected the storm to let up later in the afternoon. A main roadway to the airport was impassable, stranding passengers in terminals. A power outage at about 5:20 a.m. MDT shut down many of the airport's systems for about an hour, Montgomery said, preventing crews from fueling and de-icing aircraft. A total of 626 departing and 579 arriving flights had been canceled by about 1 p.m. MDT (1900 GMT), according to flight tracking website Blowing and drifting snow prompted the closure of Interstate 70 just east of Denver to the Kansas state line, the Colorado Department of Transportation said. Stretches of Interstate 25, the main north-south highway through the state's urban corridor, were also shut down from Colorado Springs to the Wyoming border due to the weather and multiple accidents. Authorities discouraged driving throughout eastern Colorado. "When tow trucks and fire trucks are getting stuck it's bad," the Colorado State Patrol said on Twitter. Separately, 118,000 customers in the Denver metropolitan area were without electricity due to damaged power lines, fallen trees and high winds, said Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz. The Denver area was expected to see between 6 inches (15 cm) and 12 inches (30 cm) of snow on Wednesday, with the storm moving across northern and northeastern Colorado, the National Weather Service said. The weather system was expected to move to the upper Midwest as it heads toward New England, according to the weather service. (Reporting by Keith Coffman in Colorado Springs and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney, Sandra Maler and Jonathan Oatis)