Blizzard lives up to billing

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Gazette staff
Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Blizzard of 2011 produced stories of survival and heroism across southern Wisconsin.

Gazette staff gathered some of these stories, which we present here. But first, a warning that it’s still not safe out there: Winds were supposed to pick up this morning, causing more drifting.

And, of course, it’s dangerously cold outside after subzero temperatures overnight.

“If you don’t need to go, don’t go. Stay home,” said Ben Coopman, Rock County Public Works director.

Coopman’s crews spent much of Tuesday and Wednesday helping people who didn’t hear or heed such warnings.

One car had four children and was stranded, out of gas, on a rural road at 4 a.m.

“We have some real head scratchers. What are people thinking? We’ve got a blizzard, and what are they doing putting themselves at risk? It’s mind boggling,” Coopman said.

Not quite as frustrating were calls early Wednesday morning from people in rural subdivisions, wondering why they weren’t plowed out. County plow crews struggled all day Wednesday to get even some state highways open, Coopman said.

“It took Mother Nature three days to put this snow here, and you want it out in two hours?” Coopman said.

The Janesville Wastewater Treatment Plant reported 9.6 inches fell from 7 a.m. Tuesday to 7 a.m. Wednesday. That’s in addition to 2.8 inches in the previous 24 hours.

The 24-hour total was 12 to 15 inches in southern Rock County and upwards of 16 inches in eastern Walworth County, according to the National Weather Service.

It wasn’t so much the snow, which was powdery rather than wet. It was the wind.

The snow flew fast and horizontally. It stung the eyes and cheeks. It blew long and hard, sculpting drifts as high as 15 feet in some places, Coopman said.

Rock County 911 Center reported 91 stranded vehicles and 58 occupied runoffs overnight Tuesday and Wednesday. Some found safe havens, while others waited for help.

Sheriff’s deputies left their squad cars and jumped in two National Guard Humvees and four Army trucks. But even the high-chassis, five-ton military trucks got stuck.

Snowmobiles from the Wisconsin DNR got stuck, too, said Rock County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Erik Chellevold.

Sheriff’s officials narrowed their list of stranded motorists to three at noon Wednesday, Chellevold said. Several Good Samaritans helped drivers until deputies arrived.

“As fast as we can respond to stranded vehicles, people are getting stuck,” Chellevold said.

Every deputy available to work was on the road, he said. One shift worked 16 hours. Ditto for many plow drivers.

“This is the worst storm that we’ve experienced here,” Chellevold said. “I don’t think we’ve had a manpower response prior to this that has been as big.”

Now for the stories:

Bus carrying 18 stranded

A southbound bus carrying 18 people went off Interstate 90/39 north of the Janesville rest area about 10 p.m. Tuesday. No one was hurt.

The group was Amish, including a baby and a 91-year old woman. They were headed from southwest Wisconsin to a wedding in Pennsylvania.

Passenger Jonas Graber of Loganville said a friend was driving the group. They had intended to get off at an exit.

“It was such a whiteout, we didn’t see it till we passed it,” Graber said. “Well, we didn’t make it to the next one.”

A semitrailer truck passed them, and the bus slid into the median. The truck did the same about 200 yards ahead of them, as did a car 100 yards behind them.

The accident was uneventful. “The baby didn’t even wake up,” he said.

They waited two hours. They had heat, Graber said, “but it was getting pretty chilly.”

Wisconsin Army National Guard vehicles took them to the armory in Janesville.

Guard vehicle stuck

Among the approximately 100 National Guard troops mobilized statewide Tuesday was Sgt. Brett Lange of Janesville, who took two deputies along with blankets and food east on Highway 14. They plowed through drifts but then ran into one that was 7 or 8 feet high. Visibility was nil, so the drift came up fast, Lange said. He didn’t want to lose momentum, so he forged ahead.

The result: The truck, known as an LMTV, was stuck east of Emerald Grove for more than three hours.

The Whitewater armory sent a wrecker that pulled out two of the other Janesville LMTVs, which also were stuck, but never got to Lange’s truck. A county plow helped them out around 8 a.m.

Guessing on the edge

Spc. Josh Beyer of Janesville was in a Humvee that was called to ferry the Amish bus passengers to Janesville.

“We were lucky to see 10 feet in front of us,” bleary-eyed Beyer said around 2 p.m. Wednesday. He was one of several soldiers who worked all night and was still on duty but no longer in shape to drive.

Beyer later drove an LMTV out Highway 14 west to Highway 213, picking up stranded motorists and taking them to safety. He and the deputies with him were assigned to reach a van on Highway 213 where there was some kind of medical emergency, he said, but they never made it. The highway was declared impassable before they could get there.

Beyer followed a plow, but the plow got stuck. As second plow came to pull it out. Beyer had to turn around.

“We were just guessing where the edge of the road was,” he said.

Middle school offers shelter

The Amish passengers spent hours at the Janesville National Guard Armory. They were supposed to be taken to the Red Cross shelter at Marshall Middle School.

The Red cross set up the shelter, but the wind ripped their sign off the gym door, so when guardsmen came by, the place looked deserted.

The mix-up was cleared up, and the group was transferred to the shelter late Wednesday morning.

We’re going to feed them. We’re going to allow them a chance to rest on cots and get some sleep,” said the American Red Cross’ Gordon Drake.

Line down; power out

It’s not clear if the storm was to blame, but thousands were without power for two hours or more Tuesday night in the Edgerton and Milton areas.

A wire came loose from a transmission pole, probably from the wind, around 10 p.m., said Alliant spokesman Scott Reigstad. The wire arced. The pole burned.

The result: 7,363 customers lost power. More than 5,100 Edgerton-area residents got power back around 11 p.m. The remainder, in the Milton area, didn’t get power till 3:40 a.m., Reigstad said.

Rock Energy Cooperative, which uses the same transmission line, reported 1,350 customers out for about two hours in Albion, Center, Fulton and Janesville townships.

Alliant also reported 455 customers lost power on Janesville’s west side for about two hours starting at 9:32 p.m.

Five hours in a pickup

And finally this, from Gazette Local News Editor Sid Schwartz, who knew a story when it knocked on his door Tuesday night:

After five hours stranded in a pickup truck as a howling wind drifted snow higher than their vehicle, Tim Smith, his son, Brandon Smith, and Brandon’s girlfriend, Sydney Bowser, saw the lights of snowmobiles.

The squad of three Beloit Fire Department snowmobiles struggled to reach the truck stuck next to an abandoned car three miles north of Beloit on Cleophas Road.

“There is no way we can get you out of here,” one of the firefighters told them through the truck window. “Our snowmobiles are even getting stuck.”

Brandon and Sydney had gotten stuck earlier along Highway 213 on their way home from work at about 9:30 p.m.

“Brandon was doing a really good job driving until he couldn’t see anymore,” Bowser said. “It was like a complete whitewash—zero visibility. Snow drifts above our heads. Incredible!”

Brandon’s dad, Tim, arrived about 50 minutes later with a four-wheel-drive pickup. They piled in and headed for the Smith home at 8232 Smythe School Road. Tim wheeled west onto Cleophas Road and was bucking drifts until he saw a car abandoned on the road. When he slowed, the truck chugged to a stop.

They were stuck.

Tim slogged through the drifting snow to the nearby home of Julie and Sid Schwartz, where he called 911. He returned to the truck.

“We tried to make the best of it, and laughing passes time,” Sydney said.

They had about a quarter tank of gas. Tim ran the heater to keep them warm.

The snowdrift grew in front of the pickup.

Then lights in the distance and before long a Beloit firefighter in a snowmobile suit and reflective vest was talking to them through the truck window.

It was 3 a.m., and the wind still howled. The only option was staying at the Schwartz house.

After a night on the floor and a pancake breakfast, Tim and Brandon dug out the pickup and pulled it into the driveway. Even then, there was no leaving. A 7-foot snowdrift blocked the road to the west and an ocean of smaller drifts blocked the way to the east.

More waiting.

At 2:30 p.m., Joe Rose with the Town of Beloit Department of Public Works showed up with an endloader equipped with a snow blade. He’d been clearing drift-plugged roads since 3 a.m.

“It’s bad,” Rose said.

And the worst he’d seen was Cleophas Road.

Gazette reporters Ann Marie Ames, Shelly Birkelo, Frank Schultz and Ted Sullivan contributed to this report.

Last updated: 9:51 am Monday, December 17, 2012

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