A charter bus full of metro-east residents finally returned to Highland late Sunday night, after a 72-hour odyssey to Washington, D.C.
The Mid-American Coaches’ bus had become stranded for 24 hours on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in a blizzard. Its passengers were on their way home from the pro-life “March for Life” in Washington, D.C.
After a stop in Highland let off almost half its passengers, the bus made its final stop, at the National Shrine of Our Lady of The Snows in Belleville about 10:30 p.m.
Earlier Friday, 52 people, including a half dozen Mater Dei students from Highland, were among the 40,000 people who participated in the march, which is held each year in opposition to Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion on Jan. 22, 1973.
Chaprone Rose Wascher of Highland said spirits remained high on the bus, even after the group spent Saturday night in the gymnasium at Bedford Senior High School in Bedford, Pa., before they continued their journey home early Sunday morning.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think the trip would take this long,” said Wascher, who attended the rally with her daughter, Kiersten. “But once the bus got going, all of the people on the bus let out an incredible scream.”
March for Life took place Friday afternoon, when most of Washington, D.C., was in lock-down mode after warnings that the impending blizzard could be of epic dimensions.
The march went off without a hitch, with only flurries filling the sky by the time it ended at the Supreme Court, Wascher said.
The local charter 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.
Shortly after, at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Eastern time, the bus was able to move on the snowy roads again.
Local organizer Doug Lugge of Millstadt said they don’t usually get hotel rooms for the trip, which is organized by the Diocese of Belleville. Instead, they typically ride a bus, attend the youth rally and Mass, and go to the march. They sometimes meet with elected officials and then get right back on the road.
This time, Lugge said, they didn’t wait around after the march, knowing that the snowstorm was coming.
The Mid America charter bus made it as far as the toll bridge for the Pennsylvania Turnpike before they were turned back by authorities. They ended up staying Saturday night at a high school in Bedford, Pa.
“But then we saw a bunch of buses leaving, and we figured it was open again, so we got back on the road,” said chaprone Adam Cowgill said.
They only made it about 90 minutes down the turnpike before the traffic came to a standstill due to a number of accidents.
The National Guard later came by with food and water and helped get the bus unstuck.
Mater Dei student Lucy Gonzalez of Highland was very impressed with everyone’s attitude on the bus after it got stuck in about two feet of snow.
“Our group knew the weather was supposed to be bad while we were in D.C.,” she said. “So, we planned accordingly to avoid it. Unfortunately, the highway had to be closed due to a wreck which was out of our control.”
Since returning home, Gonzalez said a number of people have asked her not only about the trip, but what it was like being stranded on a bus for more than 24 hours.
“(But) if we wouldn’t have gone, how could we identify ourselves as convicted and committed to this cause as we always strive to be?” she said. “My group and I are very pro-life, and we wish to be a voice for the voiceless in all stages of life.”
Kiersten Wascher said she wasn’t too worried about being stuck on the two-lane turnpike, because she knew they were in good hands with their chaperones.
“It was fun initially, being in the bus with my friends. But after 25 hours, I was done,” she said. “I was ready to go home, like everyone in the bus.”
Wascher said the trip, however, was one of the most humbling times of her life.
“Sharing supplies with other buses, eating MREs (meals ready to eat), and staying in a Red Cross shelter overnight really put my faith and gratitude into perspective,” she said. “Though this trip was tough, I’d do it again for the sake of conveying the importance of the right to life.”
Chaperone Joan Riffel from St. Paul Church in Highland added she was impressed with the riders’ reaction while they were stranded, saying she never saw or heard anyone being upset or regret their decision to attend the march.
“These inspiring young students and the chaperones were amazing,” she said. “It was hard keeping them inside the bus. They just wanted to get out and help other stranded travelers offering them water, food and even a push to get to another lane. They were more concerned about other lives than their own. I would do it again and not change one thing. I am at peace knowing our future is in the hands of these amazing young people.”
Mater Dei sophomore Alexa Rinderer of Highland said the trip “was absolutely wonderful and was definitely an eye-opener.”
“As for the march, many people backed out due to weather. But we continued to go, and I am beyond happy that we did,” she said.
The Belleville News-Democrat contributed to this story.
March to Life trip by the numbers
▪ 58 1/4 hours on the bus
▪ 9 hours spent in Washington, D.C.
▪ 10 hours spent at an emergency shelter
▪ 3 1/2 hours of stops going to Washington, D.C.
▪ 1 3/4 hours additional stops en route to home