CHICAGO (AP) – Lindsey Wilson was on Lake Shore Drive, but she couldn’t tell where. It was dark, and the snow swirling around the stranded bus made it impossible to see anything but the closest cars.
There was talk among her fellow commuters of 25-foot waves washing up from Lake Michigan and about when the bus might get going, but nobody knew anything – not the driver, not the 311 operators passengers were calling, and not the shivering motorists climbing aboard to keep warm after firefighters pulled them from their cars.
When a group of passengers decided enough was enough and started to walk, she joined them.
“I got 100 feet, everything was an orange hue, there was snow in my face, I couldn’t see anything, I turned around and couldn’t see the bus and I thought I was going to die,” she said Wednesday morning.
Wilson was among hundreds of people in at least 1,500 vehicles – by an Associated Press count – who found themselves trapped on Chicago’s most famous stretch of road for as long as 12 hours Tuesday night and Wednesday morning during one of the worst snow storms in the city’s history.
City officials later said that the number of cars topped 900.
In the morning light, the roadway looked like rush hour had been stopped in time.
Three lanes of cars cluttered the road with snow reaching as high as the windshields. Some cars were almost completely buried.
Bulldozers worked to clear the snow from around the cars, then tow trucks plucked them out of snow drifts one by one.
On a stranded public transit bus, a two-way radio echoed eerily through the open passenger doors. Some abandoned cars still had yellow hazard lights blinking through the snow — without a human in sight to see them.
The stranded vehicles represented the worst breakdown Chicago’s handling of the storm.
Some motorists came away angry, frustrated and puzzled at why the city didn’t close the crucial thoroughfare earlier, or why officials didn’t anticipate that a bus accident could clog it up like a cork in a bottle. Others were mad at themselves for not having chosen another route.
“In 31 years with the city, I haven’t experienced anything like we did at Lake Shore Drive,” said Raymond Orozco, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief of staff. Later, he told reporters that it was his call not to shut the road as soon as snow began, and stood by the decision. Late Wednesday, it wasn’t known when the road would reopen, and some 200 cars were still stuck.
City officials estimated as many as 900 cars were caught in the jam; an AP photographer at the scene counted at least 1,500. Orozco said diverting cars onto city streets earlier in the day would have paralyzed traffic and increased the risk for accidents.
Orozco said more than 130 firefighters, some on snowmobiles, and 100 police officers were detailed to the road. As they sat and waited, the stranded motorists gratefully gobbled down granola bars and drank coffee and Gatorade, brought to them by Samaritans who climbed fences and railings to deliver them.
For hour after hour, the passengers in Wilson’s bus waited. As lightning crackled, and wind gusts of up to 70 mph whipped up the snow and buried vehicles before their eyes, they huddled in their cars and on buses.
With word spreading that one or more buses had jackknifed ahead of them and sealed the drive, they tried to make a break for it. Fearing that they would be swallowed by the snowdrifts that by morning had climbed to the tops of vehicles, some turned around.
“I thought if I fall over, what would happen if I got buried under a pile of snow,” said Wilson, who made it back to her bus as much by feel as sight.
Others said they looked outside and didn’t dare venture out of their cars.
With so little information out there, motorists said the mood slipped from jovial to apprehensive and even to panic.
“The bus driver kept yelling,’ We are all gonna die,’” said Ron Nelson, a 51-year-old salesman who was on a bus bound for the North Side neighborhood where he lives. It wasn’t clear if the driver was joking and “nobody thought it was funny,” Nelson said at a hospital, where he was taken.
In cars, after watching their gas gauges falling, drivers tried desperately to keep their vehicles idling long enough with heaters on full blast to warm them up before turning off the ignition to keep from running out of gas.
“I know a lot of people ended up without gas and just freezing,” said Jenny Theroux, 23, an executive assistant who turned her car on and off for about 12 hours until 5 a.m. when a police officer drove her to a bus stop. .
Nearby, people called family and friends on cell phones, as much to get information and ask to be rescued as relay what was going on — in large part because they didn’t know what was going on.
Carolyn Pirotte, a 28-year-old nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, just waited in her car and talked to her husband on the cell phone. Frustrated with the lack of information from authorities, he caught a ride in a Jeep to as close as he could get to the drive and then hopped out and started walking.
With visibility reduced to a few feet, he walked down the middle of the drive, peering into windows, until he spotted her just before midnight – six hours after her ordeal began.
Then, she said, he climbed in and waited with her for three hours until firefighters took them to a warming center at a nearby hospital.
Wilson said she couldn’t blame the city for her decision to climb on the bus that took her onto Lake Shore Drive during a blizzard.
“I should have been smart enough not to take that route,” she said.