The big bus rolled into the parking lot of the National Shrine of Our Lady of The Snows about 10:15 p.m. Sunday, and pulled to a stop. Out spilled more than two dozen very weary, but happy travelers who returned to the metro-east after a 72-hour odyssey they will be talking about for a long time.
Their bus had become stranded for 24 hours on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in a blizzard on their way home from the March for Life in Washington, D.C. After a stop in Highland on Sunday night to let off almost half its passengers, the bus proceeded to the shrine.
Doug Lugge, of Millstadt, served as a bus captain for trip. In the shrine parking lot, Lugge looked weary but excited.
Lugge said the spirits of the 52 adults and high school students on the bus remained remarkably high and that they weren’t worried about their safety.
“It was tougher to get the message here that we were fine,” Lugge said. “So the bus was well-stocked. The bus had just filled up on gas, so we were a heated bus. We had the ability to charge our phones, so we were communicating well. We had a good signal...So we were really trying to get the message back that we were fine.”
Adam Cowgill, one of the trip’s chaperones, agreed that spirits remained high among students from Althoff, Mater Dei and Belleville grade schools who spent Saturday night in the gymnasium at Bedford Senior High School in Bedford, Pa., before continuing their journey home early Sunday.
When contacted by a reporter Sunday afternoon, Cowgill reported the chartered bus had passed through Columbus, Ohio about a half-hour earlier.
“Where we’re at now there’s a little bit of snow,” Cowgill said. “But it’s 95 percent grass....Everybody can see the ground again.”
Five charter busloads of people — about 250 — spent the night with them in the gym and cafeteria, Cowgill said.
Cowgill and his bus mates were thrilled to be on the highway again Sunday.
“People are tired. People are happy we’re moving,” he said. “They’re happy to be on this trip. But they’re happy to be back home.”
Cowgill said that hitting the 24th hour on the bus was actually a moment of celebration for the group.
“We all yelled and cheered,” he said.
The March for Life took place Friday afternoon, when most of Washington, D.C. was in lockdown mode after warnings that the impending blizzard could be of epic dimensions.
The march went off without a hitch early Friday afternoon, with only flurries filling the sky by the time it ended. Their bus left Washington, D.C., about 4 p.m. Eastern time. They reached the toll booth at the entrance of Pennsylvania Turnpike about 10 p.m. Friday night, by which time only about 6 inches of snow had accumulated on the ground.
But a series of car collisions up ahead caused a massive traffic jam up on the turnpike, freezing them in place for the next 24 hours.
Katlyn Harpstrite, from Mater Dei Catholic High School, in Breese, described their time stuck on the turnpike as “a very humbling experience.”
Harpstrite said this was her first trip to Washington, D.C., for the pro-life march. “And I really enjoyed it,” she said. “We spent the time eating the snacks we had, talking with our friends, playing on our phones, calling our parents, giving them updates.”
Michelle Storment, who attended the march with her husband and daughter, said the time on the bus “actually went by quickly. We watched the National Guard go up and down and they finally came and dug us out.”
The big lesson she learned from the ordeal? “Patience,” Storment said.
Shortly after, at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Eastern time, their bus was able to move on the snowy roads again.
“You’d think it was the best thing that ever happened,” Cowgill said.
Cowgill said spirits couldn’t be higher as the group pulled into Bedford High School to rest, refuel the bus, eat and wait for the roads to clear.
We enjoyed all the lessons and values we learned and re-established on this trip, but being home, taking a shower, and not being on a bus sounds pretty great to us.
Adam Cowgill, chaperone for Mater Dei students
Once they had bunked down for the night in Bedford, Cowgill she he posed a question to some of the students that night: If they knew they would be stuck for a full day, would they make the trip again?
“Almost all of them said, ‘Yes, we would still come,’” he said. And that’s because they all felt it was important to be a part of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., Cowgill said.
Another chaperone, Cyndi Hasenstab, said she was impressed with how the metro-east students, as young as 13 years old and as old as 18, responded to being stranded.
They weren’t angry or scared, Hasenstab said. They had supplies on the bus and a bathroom. But when they looked outside, they saw other motorists who weren’t so lucky, so they shared food and water with them.
“They were concerned about those people,” she said.
On Sunday morning, the group didn’t have their hometown churches, so they held Mass on the stage of the high school auditorium.
They were on the road headed home — on a “scenic route,” Cowgill said — around 9 a.m. Eastern time. The roads have been cleared on this more northern path, Cowgill said, and the group was enjoying the view. They could see the Appalachian Mountains through the bus windows.
“It’s pretty great,” Cowgill said as they passed through Belmont, Ohio.