Polar Express

In late December 2004, my husband George and I were scheduled to be in Lexington, Kentucky, for a five-day church gathering. We left southwestern Michigan at 9 AM Tuesday, an hour earlier than planned because we’d received an email from a friend in Cincinnati, Ohio, warning of freezing rain that was expected to start in Lexington in late afternoon. We hoped to arrive around 4 PM. Do not ask me how I missed the warnings on the news of the weather that might be coming north of Lexington! All across northern Indiana our route was sunny, and the road was clear and dry. Crossing into Ohio, the weather was still calm, as we headed down I-75 toward Dayton—although I was beginning to be a little suspicious of those semi-trucks coming toward us with snow all over their tops and hoods!

At 4 PM we were passing Dayton on I-75, normally less than an hour north of Cincinnati, which is about 90 miles north of Lexington. Well, we tried to pass Dayton anyway, which should take five minutes or so. About an hour later we finished passing it. For the slush and snow had started, and slowed traffic considerably.

After 5 PM, about 12 miles north of downtown Cincinnati and the bridge that crosses over the Ohio River into Kentucky, the traffic didn’t slow down. It stopped. And then began the creep. Five-minute wait, half-mile crawl. Ten-minute wait, one-quarter-mile crawl. Twenty minute wait, one-tenth-mile crawl. Thirty-minute wait … nothing. There was no clue on the radio what was going on, and we didn’t have a CB.

There was slush on the road, but for the first couple of hours, the precipitation was mostly light rain. Then it turned to snow. Then it turned to freezing pellets. We started finally hearing on the radio that there might be up to twenty inches of snow coming behind us up near Dayton, so there was no question of somehow turning back, even if we could have found a suitable exit. We had no clue what was ahead. Gratefully, we had filled our gas tank just before the Big Jam. AND we had both used the restroom at our last stop for gas!

By 11 PM we were still miles from downtown Cincinnati. We finally saw a highway sign overhead flashing the message that 1-75 was blocked near the Ohio/Kentucky bridge, and that traffic was being diverted to a bypass. But as we inched toward the intersection for that bypass, we were puzzled to see all the traffic pulled into the two right lanes, with the four lanes (slush-covered) on the left empty. The bypass exit was to the left.

Assuming that at least the truckers were keeping one another updated with their CBs, we decided to stay in the line of vehicles in the right lanes, even though it made no sense. Surely they must know something we didn’t. But just then, the driver of a creeping semi in front of us lost control of his vehicle, and it skidded and almost jackknifed back into us. George had to abruptly swerve out of the pack of cars to avoid us being crushed!

There we were, out in the no-man’s land of empty lanes of slush, just before that bypass exit. With seemingly little to lose by making a change of plans, we took that exit, leaving the miles of trucks and cars behind us still in line. But … George missed a sharp curve to get onto the bypass, and ended up going straight on a side street instead, that led right into downtown Cinci.

It was too late to try to get back safely to the bypass turn through the accumulating slush, so we kept going. The sights on the city’s streets were eerie—the huge downtown was totally dead, filling up with snow. Our car was the only vehicle on the streets. We looked at a map and saw that the street we were on was actually a state highway that would eventually reconnect with the bypass, so we followed it, and found the bypass.

There was little traffic as we entered the bypass, and we were so pleased at being able to again travel a bit more constantly. We went about a half mile … but suddenly ahead of us there was another crawling, huge traffic jam. From the map, we could tell it was merely going forward to a spot about four miles ahead—where it would join I-75 again. And that was the precise spot where the other jam had been heading!

By now the ice pellets were coming down worse. The bypass hadn’t been cleared nearly as well as even the Interstate had been, and the road was quickly turning to several inches of thick mush in deep ruts, with an icy crust forming on the top. Cars were fishtailing everywhere even at five miles per hour. Midnight was approaching with no answer to our dilemma in sight.

We didn’t know exactly what to pray for, but we just asked God to give us wisdom to know what to do. Within minutes we both agreed to take an upcoming exit that didn’t really look like it went anywhere—the exit sign didn’t give the name of a town or street or highway. But still it seemed as if it would have to be better than where we were.

Our initial impression was correct. It didn’t go “anywhere.” It led to a little town that was totally shut down, including its one gas station. We drove about a mile through the town and found nothing open, so turned around and drove back under the expressway hoping to get to a different small town in the opposite direction. A couple of blocks past the expressway, going up a winding grade, we came upon a semi truck backing down towards us! It was obvious that he had been unable to get the truck up the ice-covered incline. Not wanting to be crushed if he jack-knifed, George turned our car around as quickly as he could and headed back to the original little ghost town.

At that moment I realized I had seen a square blue sign with a white H in the middle on our first pass through town, and it finally registered in my mind what it was. A Hospital! They would have an emergency room that would be open no matter what, and be warmer than our car for the night, even if we had to just sit up in chairs all night. And with George being an insulin-dependent diabetic, if he had any health problems related to the stress, we’d be right in the perfect place to get medical care. So we followed all the H signs to St Luke’s Hospital. (We had no clue even what town we were in. We learned later it was Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. We hadn’t even realized we had crossed over into Kentucky from Cincinnati!)

By this time the ice pellets had changed to thick snow, and the parking lot was becoming snowbound as we pulled in. But we found a parking slot near the emergency room door, and in we went. There was only one man sitting in the lounge waiting for a relative, and a couple of ladies at the desk. We announced we were stranded, and asked if we could ride out the storm there. We were immediately showered with motherly attention! They ran to get us something to drink, asked if we would like a sandwich, got us pillows and blankets. The waiting room TV was tuned to the Cinci station, and although we never did find out that night what on earth was causing the jams we had been in (we eventually learned it was caused by a truck accident just before the bridge), we saw, live, the growing havoc from the storm everywhere throughout the whole Midwest.

In a few minutes I settled in curled up on a chair under a blanket, just grateful to be warm and safe. But just then, in came the head nurse, who introduced herself to us and announced she had found a much better place for us to spend the night. She took us to one of the surgery consultation rooms, that had a long couch that would make a comfortable bed, and announced that the night watchman was rustling up a roll-away. When he came rolling it in he joked that it looked like “There was no room at the inn” for us. (This was just two nights before Christmas Eve.) The nurse brought in sheets and blankets and pillows, and made up the couch for George and the rollaway for me. We had our own “private room”! Immediately across the hall was the snack room, with an ice machine and vending machines. A few feet away were the bathrooms. They kept fussing over us, wondering if there was anything more that they could do to make us feel at home.

The next morning, as we headed to the cafeteria (where we fed both of us on scrambled eggs, biscuits, and juice for a total of $2.33) we ran into the night watchman who was still on duty, and told him we had no clue when we would be able to leave. He assured us we could stay as long as needed, and that we ought to go on to breakfast … he’d keep an eye on our stuff (including George’s computer) in the room.

At 9 AM the TV news was showing the Interstates full of abandoned trucks and cars all over Kentucky, especially on a horrible stretch of I-64 heading from Louisville toward Lexington. Counties around us were on “Stage 3 Emergency” status, with only fire and police allowed on the road. We had lunch in the cafeteria around noon, and after that the reports of driving conditions, at least I -75 headed south, were steadily improving. We decided to chance heading out toward Lexington again. But we wondered how we’d get our car dug out of the snow drifts.

Out in the parking lot was the noble crew who had been fighting the snow for the past twelve hours or so with blowers and shovels, to keep the emergency lot cleared! Our car was a bit snowed in, but soon one of those tired guys came and dug our wheels out. GOD BLESS THEM ALL!

The Registration Desk lady gave us back-way directions to get to I-75 to avoid more problems. The route took us through downtown Covington, Kentucky. There was one-lane traffic on all the streets in that city, with cars totally buried deeply in snow all along each side of each street.

When we got to I-75, there was a slow crawl of cars coming off the Ohio River Bridge from Cincinnati, but we were able to merge OK, and about a half mile later, the road was suddenly almost clear. So we made it to Lexington before 4 PM—a day later than we expected, but in time for the beginning of our church gathering!

There was almost no snow on the ground at Lexington, but starting a few miles north of town, the whole landscape looked like it was crystal and blown glass! Totally ice covered. (It was still that way when we left several days later, as the temperatures stayed frigid. It was lovely when the skies finally cleared, with all that ice sparkling in the sun.)

We heard later that day that the huge storm had wreaked havoc not only on the roads in Ohio and Kentucky, but to the west in Illinois and Indiana, as well as to the east. And we found out still later that some people had been stuck on some of the expressways for up to 17 hours in their cars!

While searching on the Internet to see if I could find pictures from that storm, I found a Paducah KY National Weather Service website that described it as Number 8 in the Top 10 weather headlines of the decade 2000-2009 for the region. The pictures above, from the morning of December 23, are from that site.

Dec. 22, ’04 Snowstorm:  Near-blizzard conditions and record 24-hour snowfall paralyzed travel just a few days before Christmas. Gusty winds piled one to two feet of snow into drifts up to five feet deep. Large sections of Interstate 24 in western Kentucky and Interstate 64 in southwest Indiana were closed or impassable for days. The National Guard was mobilized to rescue over 1,000 motorists stranded on the roads.

We were so grateful that God had answered our simple prayer and given us the wisdom to find “shelter from the storm.”

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4 Responses to Polar Express

  1. Pingback: Polar Express | Currently StaRRing …

  2. I remember when this happened. What a great story.

  3. Diane Cacchio says:

    Pam – We so totally remember that storm! There were over 20 of us traveling together that got stranded near Evansville, IN. We were struck there for 2 days/nights. But God provided – we were able to get rooms at a wonderful Best Western (indoor pool, internet, breakfast) and people made paths through the 20+ inches of snow to McDonalds and Arby’s (?) so we could walk to get food. After spending hours stranded on the highway, we were just so grateful to get to the exit and find there was a place for all of us. Paula had games in their van, so we sort of moved into the lobby and made ourselves right at home. We did make it to Lexington, 2 days late, but everything worked out.

  4. Ericka says:

    I remember this as well. Michael and I were driving our little “Star Wars car” which in non-geek terms is the Hyundai Accent, a tiny 4 cylinder hamster mobile. I prayed all the way down West Kentucky Parkway, with the occasional nagging comment to Michael, “you need to stop, we are going to die out here.” There were cars in the ditches everywhere and we just slid and fishtailed our way along. It was so weird and eerie that Lexington had a bubble around it and was not hit by any snow at all, so our festivities were able to go on unscathed, except for the few late comers 😉

    Thanks for sharing. When reading your story, I must confess, I thought, “Oh good thing they went to the bathroom.” It sure would be difficult (and cold) to squat in 15 – 20 inches of snow.

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