Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A light in the Distance

All of this recent news and talk about a blizzard in New York City and elsewhere has me bringing up old memories of blizzards of my own. In 1975 I was a hotshot Agent working for the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation and was just leaving our office after a meeting and heading home to the SE corner of the state. I was riding with another agent, Carl and it had been snowing for a while. We both wanted to be home, for the weekend with our families so we pushed on. We contacted the State police on our radio to check the highway [Interstate 90] conditions and the Trooper we talked to told us they were getting ready to close the highway as the conditions were worsening by the minute. Carl asked if we could make it home and the Trooper replied that we might be able to but advised against it. There wasn’t going to be much snow and we thought that we could handle a little wind. Well we were “Super Agents” 30 years old and no fear of ever dying so we pushed on.

The following quote is from NOAA about the “Worst Blizzard of the Century” in South Dakota just to set the stage so that I can show you what true idiots we were.
The blizzard of Jan. 10-11, 1975 was widely considered to be the worst blizzard of the century in this area. There was only 7 inches of snow measured at Sioux Falls, but wind gusts were up to 70 mph, wind chills were down to 70 below zero, and visibilities were below a quarter mile at the airport for 24 straight hours. There were 8 deaths in South Dakota during the storm, …….. Two college students from Sioux Falls died from exposure when their car stalled 3 miles east of Sioux Falls. A 2000 foot high broadcast tower east of Sioux Falls collapsed due to the storm. Livestock loss was an estimated 10 to 15 thousand head.

So Frick and Frack push on. When we got up on the interstate we were much more exposed than we had been and we were now 20 miles from the State Capitol in Pierre. For those of you that are familiar with this general area you are aware of the fact that there is absolutely nowhere to really go to sit down and have a coffee and talk about it. We were in trouble and we knew it. The only way we could tell where we were on the highway was because I could see the edge of the road, which was gravel, by looking sideways out my window. Looking straight ahead was pure white. “A little bit right Carl” I would say “little bit more” as Carl seemed to prefer the center of the road. The only problem with that was the trucks passing us that didn’t seem to have a problem seeing the road? It was getting worse the further we drove. We had made about 175 miles and our luck was running out. “A little bit Right Carl, a little bit more” as I started to get nervous, “Your drifting right, way to far, turn right Carl, right now, HARD RIGHT CARL, HARD RIGHT” I shouted but it was too late. Carl had gotten Vertigo and drove right into the median. We were as stuck as stuck could be. No digging out, no pushing, just no nothing as we stood outside the car, in the 70 mph winds, trying to figure our options. Our Guardian Angel arrives. A mortician that Carl knew pulls up and offers us a ride, Hooray. We grab our guns, lock up the car and jump in with the Mortician. Well, we still can’t see except when we looking out the side windows and telling the Mortician how to steer. Finally we see a restaurant just off the road on an off ramp and decide to stop and have a coffee. We had come about 200 miles but we still had miles to go before we slept and none of us wanted to sleep on the floor of a restaurant for the night. I called into the town of Salem, about ONE mile away, and they still had a room in a Hotel so I reserved it and told them we would be there in about ½ hour as we were having coffee. We took off for Salem and immediately found that conditions were way worse. We were headed due north and just couldn’t see but the road was a gravel road and was a good one. I was hanging out of the drivers window staring at the gravel on the edge which helped us navigate. It was really cold and I would pull my head back in because of a blinding headache. I would have to literally break the ice that formed a mask over my face and forehead. Each time I was in terrible pain. Carl and I were trading off. He was in the back seat and having the same problems. Shortly I was hollering at our Mortician driver to slow down but he kept ignoring me and I hollered again to slow down. He said “Ted I am completely stopped”. I looked a different way and could see that he was. I had been watching the snow and the gravel on the side of the road and was suddenly concentrating on the snow which was traveling at 70 miles per hour over the gravel. It was my turn to get vertigo. We started back up but suddenly the car stopped as it had overheated. We got out and checked under the hood and found a blown radiator hose and that the 70 mph snow had jam packed the engine compartment with snow so hard we could not dig it out as steam was blowing out everywhere and instantly freezing. Once again we were stuck. This was becoming my longest mile ever. [when the storm was over, we checked and we had gone ½ mile in about 30 minutes] As we contemplated our options our Mortician notified us that he was a diabetic and took insulin. Carl and I figured we didn’t need to make him spend the night in a cold car. Carl spotted a yard light about 100 yards away that would disappear and then reappear but we couldn’t tell what it was for. It could have been for an outbuilding with no heat and no food. It could have been for a house but it might be too far to reach. There were a hundred “might be’s” between the three of us that evening as we contemplated everything, including our lives. We were in deep do do and we knew it. The three of us could probably keep the car warm enough to survive but we had no blankets, warm coats, candles, etc. etc. etc. All of the things you should have to keep you alive in a South Dakota blizzard. [The logic of staying in the car was a little bit flawed when you reference the NOAA statement above about the two college students whose car stalled.] My clothing consisted of a suit, topcoat, low cut shoes, no hat and no gloves. My two compatriots were basically in the same condition. We opted to make a “run for it “ towards the light and hope for the best. When I stepped out of the car I kinda figured I was making a mistake and was not going to make it to whatever fate was waiting at the light in the distance. I was overwhelmed by the process of making the decision about our future, which had just taken place in the confines of the warm car. We had made a life or death decision based on not very much knowledge about our real options. I thought about my wife and daughter and how I really wanted to be with them at this moment. About my parents and how I probably wasn’t going to see them again. I prayed. I thought about a lot of things and I imagine it kept me going as we plunged on through the snow, towards the light in the distance, breaking through the crusted snow that had been jammed together by the cold and 70 mile winds. I can still feel how cold it was as the wind whipped around my, now frozen, ears. My hands were totally numb but I can’t remember my feet. My feet were constantly submerged in the deep snow, my shoes were full as we struggled onward, stumbling, and trying to run when the snow was shallow. All I knew is that my feet were still working and that was all that was important. The last 50 yards our Mortician turned and hollered “It’s a house” as the image was just now becoming visible under the light. I was cold, I was tiring and I was praying that there would be lights in the house. We all trudged on, falling and cussing buoyed by the thought it was a house. At 25 yards we could make out a couple of lights in the windows. Carl knocked on the door and a wonderful older woman and her husband were at the door taking us in. It was at this point that I was at my coldest. So cold I was shaking uncontrollable and it took hours for me to get warm and stop shaking. I’m sure that wonderful couple told the story a hundred times about “The night the two DCI agents and the Mortician came by for supper and to stay a few nights”. God Bless them, South Dakota hospitality and the light in the distance.


keewee said...

Ted, I was caught in a blizzard many years ago, the scariest time of my life, and it wasn't anywhere near as serious as your experience, but I learned NOT TO TAKE CHANCES in those weather conditions.

Ted said...

Your right Keewee-You can't be stupid like we were