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The Prime Outlets parking lot will hold 3,000 vehicles. At one point Friday morning, the lot was full and another 4,000 vehicles were backed up on the nearby interstates waiting to get in.

Interstates 79 and 80 turned into gigantic parking lots early Thursday as hordes of shoppers descended on Prime Outlets at Grove City which was hosting a “Midnight Madness’’ sale.

The Black Friday event lived up to its name as gridlock on both highways led to waits up to five hours long just to get into the Springfield Township outlet mall. Traffic on Interstate 79 northbound was backed up to 10 miles and the southbound lanes up to six miles, Pennsylvania State Police said. Traffic on I-80 eastbound was slowed for up to four miles.

“It was surreal,’’ said Herald Editor Jim Raykie who was at the mall in the wee hours of the morning. “When I looked south down I-79, traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see.’’

Traffic began snarling at 10 p.m. Thursday and the lanes didn’t resume their normal flow until 5:30 a.m. Friday, police said.

The overwhelming traffic caught police off guard. Lt. Mark Schau, commander of the Troop D barracks in Jackson Township, said extra troopers had been called out in preparation for heavy traffic, but the volume was much larger than anyone expected.

“We had some extra patrols, but we needed help from an adjoining station,” he said. “PennDOT came out and provided some signs.”

Prime Outlets heavily promoted this first-of-its-kind post-Thanksgiving event over a 100-mile radius, particularly in the Pittsburgh area. Shoppers from as far away as Canada were lured to the 145-store mall with promises of up to 65 percent off merchandise between midnight and 8 a.m.

Stores began getting an inkling its was going to be a blockbuster event before the shops opened.

“I had one of our girls call me from the store at 11:45 p.m. that there were 40 people waiting at the door,’’ said Sharon Gruitza, manager of Coldwater Creek.

Offering 40 percent discounts on merchandise, the store was still doing hefty sales volume at 10 a.m. Friday.

“I expected to have some business,’’ Ms. Gruitza said. “But no, I didn’t expect what we had.’’

At 11:30 p.m. Thursday, 250 people were mobbed around Coach leather goods waiting for the shop to open. Once the doors were unlocked, employees had to limit the number of people inside.

“By 1 a.m. the line was longer at Coach than it was at 11:30,’’ Raykie said.

A crushing volume of traffic quickly filled the mall’s parking lot by 1 a.m. When the lot filled beyond its 3,000-car capacity, an estimated 4,000 vehicles waiting to get in were literally stuck on the highways.

“There was no place for anyone to go,’’ said Carmen DeRose, the mall’s general manager. “It was gridlock. You couldn’t move people anywhere.’’

At that point, frenzied shoppers took extreme measures by parking in nearby fields and along highways. Three wreckers were called to tow away vehicles parked on I-79, Schau said. Some motorists abandoned their vehicles and jumped a fence to get to the mall, he added.

A combination of perfect weather, discounts offered by national brand stores and almost every other retailer being closed led to the overwhelming response, DeRose said. As dawn broke Thursday morning and traffic subsided to normal levels, a bleary-eyed DeRose tried to describe the experience: “I don’t even know what adjectives to use at this point.’’

By 3:30 a.m. DeRose estimated more than 17,000 shoppers had inundated the mall.

That estimate was confirmed by Hermitage resident Bill Dunsmore who arrived at the mall around midnight with friends.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,’’ said Dunsmore, a retired principal from Case Avenue Elementary School in Sharon. “You walked seven and eight abreast on the sidewalks. It was like a Middle Eastern bazaar.’’

Despite the throngs and excruciatingly long waits, state police reported no fights.

“It had a carnival aspect to it,’’ Dunsmore said. “People in the mall were in a mood that they were fortunate and were glad they weren’t the ones still on the road.’’

But getting a parking spot didn’t mean an end to long lines, said Traci Valentino, the current Case Avenue principal who was with Dunsmore.

“It was very crazy,’’ Ms. Valentino said. “You couldn’t purchase anything because the lines were so long — you had to wait an hour in line. I only came home with one bag because you couldn’t wait in line.’’

Even getting a snack at the food court proved to be a chore.

“The line for a cup of coffee was out the door,’’ Ms. Valentino said.

Shoppers craving for food found alternative suppliers.

“This morning they were buying things to eat from me because the food court was so packed,’’ said Linda Dalessandri, manager of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate store.

A few stores, such as Sony, didn’t open until 6 a.m. Friday. But that didn’t dishearten consumers.

“A line began forming in front of Sony’s by 1:30 a.m.,’’ Ms. Valentino said.

After selecting a pair of boots at the Timberland store, Hermitage resident Lisa Puhak waited in a checkout line for an hour.

“It was so crowded,’’ she said. “But it was a lot of fun. There was a ton of people everywhere.’’

A number of would-be shoppers gave up hope of buying anything. After being stuck on the highway for 2èhours, Sharon resident Heather Starkey threw in the towel and headed home.

“A state trooper on I-79 didn’t prevent me from making an illegal U-turn,’’ Ms. Starkey said. “I think he was so happy just to see us leave.’’

Prime Outlets plans to stage the event next Thanksgiving but will search for ways to handle the enormous crowds. State police have their thinking caps on as well.

“We’re going to definitely have to look at it for next year,” Schau said, adding even more patrols will be assigned.

Like many of her fellow shoppers, Ms. Valentino took a more survivalist outlook: “It wasn’t something we will do again,’’ she said. “But I’m sure each Thanksgiving we’ll be discussing it.’’

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