More than 50 metro-east residents were stranded on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for nearly a full day, after the massive East Coast snowstorm halted a bus returning from a pro-life march.
Mater Dei students and others with the Diocese of Belleville have traditionally attended the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. for years, and this year was no exception, despite the burgeoning storm.
Organizer Doug Lugge said they don’t usually get hotel rooms for the annual trip, which is organized by the Diocese of Belleville. It includes many students from area Catholic schools such as Althoff, Notre Dame Academy, St. Theresa’s and Mater Dei, as well as adults. Instead, they ride in on a bus, attend a youth rally and Mass, go to the march and sometimes meet with elected officials, and then get right back on the road.
This time, Lugge said, they didn’t wait around; knowing that the snow was coming, they left right away. And since they don’t get a hotel, the bus was well-stocked with water and snacks.
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That turned out to be good fortune. The bus left Washington D.C. by 4 p.m. Friday and made it as far as the toll bridge for the Pennsylvania Turnpike before they were turned back by authorities. They headed to a truck stop and waited for a couple of hours.
“But then we saw a bunch of buses leaving and we figured it was open again, so we got back on the road,” said Adam Cowgill, a chaperone for the event.
But they only made it about 90 minutes down the turnpike before the traffic came to a standstill, Cowgill said - and it hadn’t moved at all by Saturday evening. The Mater Dei bus was among many other vehicles, including buses and passenger cars, that were snowed in and stuck.
“It’s white everywhere,” Cowgill said. “We’re pretty much hemmed in on all sides.”
It’s white everywhere. We’re pretty much hemmed in on all sides.
Adam Cowgill, chaperone for Mater Dei students
The group on the bus was mostly in good spirits despite 53 people enclosed for nearly 24 hours in a bus rated for 55 people. The National Guard came by with food and water, and many people were trying to help dig out the smaller vehicles as the snow accumulates.
The bus finally was freed at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time. Once freed, the bus turned around and headed back east instead of continuing westbound on the turnpike. “Apparently trying to clear the westbound lane is a lot harder than they expected,” Cowgill said.
Cowgill said the bus company has found them space at Bedford Senior High School in Bedford, Pa., where the group can rest, refuel the bus, eat a real meal and wait for the roads to clear.
Lugge said there were at least five buses from the march stuck within a mile of each other, and they were sharing their food and water with those trapped in smaller vehicles who might not have as many supplies. “We care for life at all stages,” Lugge said.
Students were catching up on homework, and adults were catching up on sleep, Cowgill said.
“I’m very impressed with everyone’s attitude; we’re not hearing a lot of complaints,” said Mater Dei student Lucy Gonzalez, 18, of Highland. “We’re all a little tired.”
Chaperone Cyndi Hasenstab said the experience has been “truly eye-opening.”
“The kids continue to amaze me,” Hasenstab said. “Everyone is coming together, sharing supplies and getting along. Some of the male chaperones and older male teens got off the bus and helped shovel snow from around cars... Our kids are doing great things. Instead of being upset or whiny, they are taking care of their fellow human beings.”
The kids continue to amaze me. Everyone is coming together, sharing supplies and getting along. Some of the male chaperones and older male teens got off the bus and helped shovel snow from around cars.
Cyndi Hasenstab, chaperone
Lugge said the workers were cutting a path on the shoulder and digging out the small passenger cars with less fuel. “Then they’ll get a plow in here to get the trucks and buses out,” he said.
“At some point we’ll need to get more water and food,” Lugge said. “But most of it has been prioritizing the people who need it first.”
Cowgill attended the event all four years when he was a student, and now that he’s a graduate, he chaperones the students on their bus trip. he said they had “an idea” that the storm would be a problem before they left, but they were determined to make the March for Life. “We figured we needed to try,” he said. “It sends an important message to our elected officials that this means a lot to us.”
We figured we needed to try. It sends an important message to our elected officials that this means a lot to us.
Adam Cowgill, chaperone for Mater Dei students
Snowbound college athletes also spent the night stranded on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The stranded people munched on snacks or watched movies to pass the time as they waited to be dug out from massive backups that stretched for miles brought on by a powerful winter storm.
“We see pretty much desolation and pretty snow,” Gonzalez said. “There are a few farms in the distance, but not much else.”
More than 500 cars, trucks and buses that got stuck Friday night still hadn't moved on Saturday, including buses carrying the Duquesne men’s basketball team and the gymnastics squad from Temple University. A group of 96 parishioners from an Indiana church — mostly teens — we also among the stranded.
The National Guard was called out to provide food and water, as well as chains and shovels while emergency workers on all-terrain vehicles checked on stranded motorists. Officials closed a 90-mile stretch of the roadway to allow maintenance workers to focus on those who were stuck.
“We haven't moved one inch,” Duquesne coach Jim Ferry told The Associated Press on Saturday morning.
Ferry said his players were running out of the leftover pizza they bought on the way home from an 86-75 win over George Mason on Friday afternoon.
“We're getting pretty hungry,” he said. “We hope it starts moving pretty soon.”
We’re getting pretty hungry. We hope it starts moving pretty soon.
Duquesne basketball coach Jim Ferry
Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said the problems in Somerset County began after westbound tractor-trailers were unable to climb a hill. As traffic backed up behind them, more trucks also became unable to go up the hill, backing up all vehicles and preventing emergency crews from getting heavy-duty tow trucks to the scene and road crews from being able to clear the snow, officials said.
Wolf said each vehicle had been checked at least once, and workers had been delivering food as well as fuel to make sure engines keep running so the heat can stay on. He said the state was working to get shelters in place quickly so people can be moved to them in buses if necessary.
A number of church-based groups were returning from the March for Life and got stuck on the turnkpike. At one point, they held a Mass, using an altar made of snow.
Father Shaun Whittington, who was with a church group from Indiana, said they had enough gas to keep the buses running and enough DVDs to keep the kids entertained.
“We’ve been warm and we’ve had food, we’ve watched some movies and slept and prayed,” he said. “Everybody’s in good spirits.”
Whittington called it a surprise, but not scary.
“We’re on a pilgrimage, there’s going to be suffering with that,” he said. “We’ve got to take it as it comes.”
We’ve been warm and we’ve had food, we’ve watched some movies and slept and prayed. Everybody’s in good spirits. We’re on a pilgrimage, there’s going to be suffering with that.
Father Shaun Whittington, from an Indiana group that attended pro-life march
Temple gymnastics coach Umme Salim-Beasley said her team usually travels with a large amount of snacks “so those came in handy,” and fire department personnel brought them water.
“We always bring movies for our bus trip, and we have gone through all of them and we’ll probably start watching them again,” she said.
Ferry said his players were also in good spirits, passing the time with jokes and watching movies.
“But you got to remember we have some big guys, so it’s hard to sleep on a bus like this,” he said.
Salim-Beasley, however, said her team’s training has made spending hours on a cramped bus more bearable than it might be for others.
“We are a gymnastics team,” she said. “So we can get into positions that most people won’t be able to get into.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. For more on this developing story, return to bnd.com or read the News-Democrat on Sunday.