NEW YORK (AP) — When Angela Madsen was pulled off her plane and her wheelchair stayed on board, she knew she was in for a rough night. The paraplegic athlete struggled to get into the bathrooms at Kennedy Airport. Turning the wheels on her borrowed wheelchair strained her shoulders. Sleeping was impossible.
“I actually got out of it and laid on the floor,” Madsen said.
It was, she said, a miserable time — one that was shared by millions of people on Monday, in travails big and small, serious and surreal, after the blizzard of December 2010 sucker-punched the northeastern U.S. during one of the busiest travel days of the year.
Air travel in the nation’s busiest airspace nearly shut down, and thousands of stranded passengers turned terminals into open-air hotels while they waited for planes to take off and land on plowed runways. Flights slowly resumed, although experts said it would likely take several days to rebook all the displaced passengers.
Adriana Siqueira, 38, was rapidly running of money with no end in sight to her travel nightmare at New York’s LaGuardia. The housekeeper from Ft. Lauderdale has been told she and her 10-year-old daughter cannot get home until New Year’s Day. They have already spent one night in the terminal and can’t afford a hotel.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” Siqueira said. “My voice is not good. I don’t feel good.”
A tractor-trailer skidded off a road and smashed into a house in Maine. A woman went into labor on a New Jersey highway, causing a traffic jam that stranded 30 vehicles. Rails on the normally reliable New York subway shorted out. Winds topping 65 mph ripped power lines, leaving tens of thousands of people in the dark across New England.
This storm simply didn’t play fair, cold-cocking the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow on a holiday weekend when everyone seemed to be out of town, groggy with holiday cheer or just unprepared.
In New York, residents outside Manhattan complained of a sluggish response by snow plow crews who still hadn’t finished clearing the streets. State Sen. Carl Kruger, a Democrat who represents Brooklyn, called the city’s response a “colossal failure.” Fire officials said the unplowed streets and abandoned cars made it harder to respond to emergencies, including a five-alarm, wind-whipped blaze at a Queens apartment building Monday night.
A testy Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the city’s cleanup effort, saying the crews were being slowed down by abandoned cars on the streets.
“There’s no reason for everybody to panic,” he said. “Our city is doing exactly what you’d want it to do.”
After spending Sunday night tossing and turning on airport floors, thousands of bleary-eyed travelers spent Monday standing in lines, begging for flights, fighting for taxis and hunting for hotel rooms.
The storm wreaked havoc on almost every form of conveyance: from the buses at the nation’s busiest terminal near Times Square to the region’s usually punctual commuter trains.
Little problems quickly snowballed: On New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway, a motorist struggled to find the shoulder of the road after his wife went into labor, causing a traffic jam that eventually stranded 30 vehicles, state trooper Chris Menello said. Among them were two buses full of people returning from Atlantic City.
In central Pennsylvania, a strong gust of wind derailed a freight train on a bridge near Harrisburg on Monday, sending two shipping containers into the Susquehanna River. The derailment disrupted service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg Tuesday.
Two of the New York area’s major airports — LaGuardia and Kennedy — began to receive inbound flights on Monday night. Newark Liberty began receiving inbound flights Tuesday morning. Hundreds of flights were canceled at all three airports.
Those two magic words — “on time” — lit up at least half the departure boards early Tuesday at LaGuardia, where passengers stretched out sleeping under blankets along the windowsill of a food court.
For bedraggled passengers who were finally about to board flights home, there was a sense of exhaustion that overwhelmed any excitement they might have felt.
“I don’t know if I ever want to go on vacation again, honestly,” said 28-year-old Tiffany Bunton, who was heading through security with her 8-year-old daughter, Trystan, on their way back to Ft. Worth, Texas.
They’ve spent two nights at a hotel in Queens “going stir-crazy,” Bunton said.
“The relief actually came for me when we finally got a taxi to the airport this morning,” she said.
Across the region, the storm’s aftermath was punctuated by surreal moments, like the sight of Adrian Traylor, 29, roaming the Newark airport terminal in a kilt and bare legs as subfreezing winds howled outside.
Traylor, who lives in Scotland, was on his way to visit relatives in Las Vegas and said he wore the kilt to impress his family.
“I didn’t think I’d be wearing it this long,” he said.
In Newport, Maine, 81-year-old Marguerite Fowler and her husband were asleep when an 18-wheeler full of tree bark lost control on an icy road at 2:10 a.m. and obliterated their home’s sun room.
“I thought it was a bomb,” Fowler said. “We don’t need all that excitement at our age.”
Christopher Mullen returned from sunny Cancun, Mexico, to find his car buried in the snow in long-term parking at Kennedy Airport. After trying to dig it out and getting soaked in the process, he finally gave up and took the subway — which promptly broke down.
Mullen and his girlfriend spent eight hours in a freezing subway car, shivering under a thin blanket.
The storm, which dumped 20 inches of snow in Central Park Sunday, was New York City’s sixth-worst since record-keeping began in 1869, said Adrienne Leptich, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. A February 2006 storm dropped 26.9 inches of snow on Central Park, breaking the previous record, set in 1947, by half an inch.
The storm was sprawling and fickle, dropping 29 inches on Staten Island; 32 on Rahway, N.J.; 10 on Franklin, S.C., about 12 on Philadelphia; and 19 in South Boston but only 6.5 in West Hartford, Conn., according to the Weather Service.
It spared no one, not even men who travel on ice for a living. A bus carrying the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team got stuck in the blizzard for four hours while trying to return to their hotel after a game against the New Jersey Devils. And, members of the U.S. luge team lost two days of training after they were stranded on their way to Koenigssee, Germany.
In Philadelphia, pedestrians dodged chunks of ice blown off skyscrapers. New York taxi driver Shafqat Hayat struggled to get his car moving Monday after spending the night trapped on an unplowed street.
“I’ve seen a lot of snow before, but on the roads, I’ve never seen so many cars stuck in 22 years,” Hayat said.
Some travelers tried to make the best of it. At the Newark airport, Frank Mann, his son 9-year-old son Stephen and his girlfriend Jackie Douglas said their night on the terminal floor was sort of like taking a camping trip.
They made beds out of luggage trays turned upside down, ate hot dogs from the snack bar and even did some bird-watching: pigeons seeking refuge from the elements were taking baths in puddles of water dripping from the ceiling.
“This airport becomes a whole different place at night,” said Mann, a 53-year-old lawyer from Houston.
When things got boring, Stephen pulled out his Kindle to finish a book he had started before getting stranded.
The book was about another youngster stranded far from home by bad weather: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)