Hundreds of Motorists Stranded in NYS Thruway

Thursday, Dec 2, 2010  |  Updated 2:17 PM EDT
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Early December snow caused massive traffic problems upstate.

Early December snow caused massive traffic problems upstate.

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Hundreds of cold and hungry motorists spent hours Thursday stranded on a western New York highway after an accident caused a backup and the idling trucks and cars got stuck in heavy snow.

A storm that began Wednesday and continued overnight buried parts of Buffalo and its suburbs under 2 feet of snow, but largely spared the downtown. Dozens of schools canceled classes.

After a truck jackknifed on Interstate 90 on Wednesday evening, police closed the highway about 3 a.m. Thursday when vehicles became backed up and buried in blowing snow, State Trooper Daniel Golinski said. Drivers also were stranded on a 3-mile stretch of Interstate 190.

By midday, parts of I-90 were reopened and the stretch of I-190 reopened shortly afterward.

Jack Geiselman took his 14-hours stranded on the highway in 32-degree weather in stride.

"I tend not to be a ranter-and-raver about things and the point is, it's nothing I have any control over," the 60-year-old semi-retired civil engineer said. "I guess the way I look at it is, it's over. I guess stuff happens. It's not the end of the world."

Geiselman was traveling in a Honda Civic from Keene, N.Y., to Cleveland with his black lab Boomer to help his daughter get her house ready for a baby due between Christmas and New Year. He had with him a sleeping bag and plenty of warm clothing and gas. He said state troopers came by with coffee and food for people in cars.

Emergency crews on ATVs passed out water and protein bars, and buses picked up motorists and delivered them to a shelter at a senior citizen center.

State Police had no reports of medical emergencies, although one older motorist who uses oxygen was among the stranded and was taken to safety, said Capt. Michael Nigrelli.

Not to be discouraged, two truck drivers who left their tandems idling in the early morning tramped through the snow for about half a mile to pick up a breakfast sandwich and coffee off the highway. They seemed almost cheerful despite the hit on their livelihood.

"The wheels are not moving and we're making nothing," said Don Lanphere, 51, a trucker for 32 years who was hauling dog food. "The only guys making money are the plow operators."

"I had the radio on listening," said Curt Doverspike, 40, a trucker from Jamestown. "They said we should be getting out soon. Nothing ever happened so we just went to bed, woke up this morning. We're just kind of used to it."

He said regular travelers were venting their frustrations but the truck drivers were calmer.

"There's traffic jams, accidents all the time," Doverspike said. "You just get used to it. I guess it's easier for us than those in the cars because they get frustrated. We have a bed. If we get bored, we lay down and go to bed."

Other truckers left the road to find refuge at truck stops, parking lots and city streets, but most kept their rigs parked on the highway, especially the tandem drivers who, with two trailers behind them, are allowed to get off the highway only at designated exits.

Matt Welling was hauling a double tractor-trailer full of groceries when traffic came to a standstill. He spent the night "sitting back, playing a little Solitaire on the computer, taking a nap," the Wegmans driver said after more than eight hours stuck on the road.

"I'm pretty chilly, hungry. A nice cup of coffee would do pretty well right now," he said by cell phone.

Police said an 11-mile stretch of road along Buffalo's eastern edge remained closed Thursday afternoon, and tractor-trailers remained the primary source of gridlock. Buffalo's mayor issued a driving ban for the city's southern section.

The snow was expected to shift north through Buffalo during the day.

In Cattaraugus County on New York's southwestern edge, flooding was the bigger problem following heavy rain. Two emergency shelters were opened, in Olean and Portville, as the Allegheny River reached moderate flood stage. Between 50 and 100 homes were affected, said Stephanie Timblin, spokeswoman for the county's Office of Emergency Services.

The river was expected to crest Thursday afternoon and drop overnight.

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