Maryland drivers rescued after being stuck in snowdrifts

By Mary Pat Flaherty, Dan Morse and Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 12, 2010; A01

Chris Perry made it a mile down New Design Road in remote, rural Frederick County before the squalls hit Wednesday afternoon.

Winds suddenly topped 50 mph. Perry's blue Ford Explorer rocked from side to side. Three feet of snow was being whipped into an eight-foot drift on one side of the road and was creeping up around the Explorer's bumpers.

Perry could see his hood but little else in front of him. He pushed the V8 engine, shoving snow aside, backing up and then trying to muscle forward.

But he couldn't move. Perry, who was simply trying to get home from work in Poolesville, had become one of about 25 people stranded on Frederick's isolated roads when the ferocious blizzard hit hardest.

With no homes or stores nearby, Perry, 26, called his wife, Yara, about 2 p.m. on his cellphone. He assured her that he'd be okay. They got married in September. It was still daylight, he told her, and crews were still plowing. She thought he'd be fine.

He posted to his Facebook page a little later in case any of his friends were nearby and mobile: Stuck on New Design Road near Route 28, send help if you can.

He called his wife again, and as the bars on his phone dropped to one, he sent a text at 5:15 p.m. that panicked her:

"I hope something happens soon. . . . I'm below a quarter of a tank. Scott's [a friend] house is about a mile away. I may try to walk there."

Snow blocked his SUV's passenger door. Perry, 6-foot-1 and 250 pounds, pushed out the driver-side door, but "at least three feet of snow was there," and towering drifts were nearby, he said. He wasn't going anywhere.

Then he watched the single bar on his phone disappear.

Yara Perry heard nothing more. Not for an hour. Not by 2 a.m., not by dawn, as she called and called emergency workers. She said they were helpful and compassionate but constricted by the walls of snow piling up throughout the county. More than 22 inches fell in Frederick on Tuesday and Wednesday, more than twice as much as in the District.

"I was past the point of functional by midnight," said Yara Perry, also 26.

Rescue crews knew where Perry was. But for a long night, they struggled to reach him and to account for about 39 other vehicles from which motorists had contacted police to say they were trapped as night fell.

The rescues were nearly impossible. Strong winds created five- to 10-foot tall drifts, said Lt. Michael Brady, commander of the Maryland State Police barracks in Frederick. Visibility was so bad that some motorists drove into snowbanks, he said.

"Even the SUVs were stuck. Four-by-fours were stuck," he said.

National Guardsmen in Humvees and state highway workers in trucks couldn't get through some sections. A pair of state troopers in a sport-utility vehicle were stuck for four hours. Roads became impassable not just because of the snow but because of stuck tractor-trailers that blocked cars behind them.

But at least a dozen motorists were rescued from vehicles overnight and taken to fire stations and other shelters.

Rescuers used massive plows and helicopter surveillance -- with help from a farmer with a tractor and a guy with a snowmobile -- to clear roads, free motorists and account for those who had contacted police and abandoned their cars. They were trying to reach the last of those cars late Thursday, but they thought it was empty, authorities said. No serious injuries had been reported among the stranded motorists.

Rescuers were also trying to reach six additional cars reported stranded Thursday night in the northern part of the county.

In a region hit hard by a second massive snowstorm in four days, Frederick stood out, said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration.

"What was unique," Buck said, "was that the snow kept falling hard very late there, and they got the full 50-plus-mile winds that had been predicted. Based on what our own people experienced out there, people could be moving along and within not very many minutes realize they couldn't move forward, and the snow was backfilling behind them.

"I can't imagine what that felt like."

Chris Perry knows.

"I kept thinking, 'I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime snow, and I hope I make it home to relive it with my wife,' " he said.

He gathered the stack of clothes he kept in his SUV -- the clothes his wife says she was forever telling him to tidy up -- and layered them on: hooded sweat shirt, coat, hiking boots. He cleared snow from around the Explorer's tail pipe and stepped outside every so often to clear snow from the hood and roof so rescuers could spot him.

He sparred with the heat, turning on the engine every hour or so, very briefly, to make the most of his fuel.

Meanwhile, Frederick firefighters and medics Jeff Buchanan and Larry Kessler pulled out of the Westview Fire Station in Frederick about 7 p.m. Wednesday in a truck with a snowplow attached, knowing only that they were going to help a guy stuck on New Design Road.

The usual 20-minute trip from the station took 90 minutes, and when they got within sight of Perry's SUV, they came upon a five-foot-tall wall of snow that stretched for 100 yards, said Buchanan, a seven-year department veteran.

They began to walk but "quickly realized it was too windy and too cold to go farther," Buchanan said, and their truck was low on fuel. Snowplows, which had been pulled off roads during the whiteouts, would have to go through once more before they could make it to Perry, Buchanan recalled thinking. The firefighters planned to try again at 5 a.m.

Taking a different road, they got stuck again.

"Out of nowhere," Buchanan said, a farmer with a tractor made his way toward them, pulling in front of their truck and cutting a path. They drew closer to Perry, painfully slowed by the snow until Buchanan said he started to think "this was turning into a recovery operation" rather than a rescue. About a quarter-mile from the Explorer, in more than three feet of snow, the firefighters' truck got stuck yet again.

They got out and began walking.

Perry, who had decided he would wait until 10 a.m. "and then do whatever I had to do to try to make it out," saw a truck's distant lights and thought, "God bless them, the rescue team."

Buchanan saw movement in the SUV and felt "shocked. We didn't believe he was alive."

At 9 a.m., Buchanan handed Perry a cellphone to call his wife and parents.

"I only talked to him for a minute or two, but those minutes ended the longest hours of my life," Yara Perry said.

The firefighters reported that they had a rescue and could use a hand getting Perry back. A resident who had offered his snowmobile for emergency operations took the three back to the firefighters' truck. Perry declined an offer to go to a hospital.

"I was fine, and I wanted to get home," he said, adding that he "did some praying" as he sat in the dark. "And I'd been thinking all night about my wife."

Home together, they planned to spend the night watching movies, Chris Perry said Thursday. "We're staying in."

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