Oregon, California police work to free hundreds of drivers
ASHLAND, Ore. -- Hundreds of drivers stranded by a fast-moving snowstorm California and Oregon were escorted to safety Monday after spending a long, frigid night in their cars with little food or water.
Crews spent the day clearing roads, pulling cars out of snowbanks and shuttling supplies to the stuck drivers before leading them down the mountain pass in the afternoon.
"It's just been miserable," said tow truck driver Kevin Wyatt, his face smeared with soot after spending the night digging out cars and trucks. "They thought it was a light storm and it just came down super, super fast. After they got stuck we couldn't get up here fast enough. When it snows four inches in two minutes, you can't do nothing."
John Vial, district manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, estimated 250 to 500 vehicles were stranded overnight after the Siskiyou Pass was closed Sunday night. State police Lt. Kurt Barthel said the storm and traffic problems were the worst he has seen in 25 years working the Siskiyou Summit.
The National Weather Service said as much as 2 feet of snow had fallen along Interstate 5, which was shut down from Redding, Calif., to Ashland. State police said some drifts were 6 to 7 feet high.
A 57-year-old Oregon man stranded near the summit died of a heart attack after helping other drivers put chains on their cars, authorities said.
Hope Peelle, of Puyallup, Wash., said she borrowed water from another driver to make formula for her 9-month-old daughter, and kept the bottle warm with her body heat. She and her husband, Victor Vega, were on their way home from visiting relatives in Ontario, Calif. The family filled up their digital camera with snow pictures, and turned the heater on intermittently to keep warm.
"I can tell you this: I'm flying next time," Vega said as the family was escorted down the mountain.
Volunteers used snowmobiles to bring food, gas and water to the drivers, most of whom carried no tire chains.
"We have people with children, with medication needs, people who are on oxygen and did not bring an extra tank," said Jared Castle, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. "I understand that everyone is cold, wet and tired. We've got crews working around the clock."
Authorities hoped to reopen northbound lanes of Interstate 5 sometime Monday, but there was no telling when southbound lanes would be passable because so many vehicles were blocking the way on the Oregon side of the border, Vial said.
"We just had unusually heavy holiday traffic," Vial said. "The call made to shut it down wasn't made in time. Those are tough decisions. We are not going to get all of them right."
On the California side, stranded motorists were able to leave shortly after noon Monday, and there were no injuries or accidents to report, said Sgt. Don Jordan of the California Highway Patrol.