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Cars and trucks stuck on Thruway for 16 hours and counting

About 150 trucks and cars were stuck on the Thruway throughout the day Tuesday, mostly near the Lackawanna toll barrier, as the relentless storm pummeled South Buffalo and the Southtowns with foot upon foot of snow.

Paul and Lisa Winter of Eden were marooned in their Chevy Avalanche since about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, when Paul picked up Lisa from the airport.

“No one’s even checked on us,” Lisa Winter said at 4 p.m. Tuesday. “We’ve called the Thruway Authority, and they say ‘We’re doing the best we can.’ ”

“The rescue mission sucks,” her husband added.

Thruway officials said they hoped to have the roughly 75 cars freed by late Tuesday night but it would take longer to shovel out the trucks.

Officials said food, water and fuel were delivered by a variety of means to stranded motorists by Thruway employees, state police and Department of Environmental Conservation personnel.

Lisa Winter said her plane was a little late landing, and they started back to Eden later than they planned. The weather at Buffalo Niagara International Airport was clear when they headed south, she said, and the signs on the Thruway said a big storm was coming at 6 a.m., she said.

Also stuck about two miles south of the toll barrier was the Niagara University women’s basketball team, who were on their way back from a game against the University of Pittsburgh.

“We stopped moving at 2 a.m.,” said coach Kendra Faustin, who was on board along with her two young children, ages 1 and 3. “We’ve been stuck ever since.”

Like the Winters, they’ve had no direct contact with the authorities since their charter bus stopped moving.

But the women all understood that the weather was terrible and there probably wasn’t much troopers could do. “The snowmobiles got stuck because it was so deep,” Faustin said.

State police told drivers to stay inside their vehicles, even as the hours dragged on.

Authorities shut the Thruway from Exit 55 at Ridge Road to Exit 59 in Dunkirk at about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. A much longer section, extending from Dunkirk to Rochester, was closed to traffic at about 3:30 a.m. That was extended to Ripley at midmorning after a tractor-trailer crashed on the eastbound side between the Pennsylvania state line and Exit 61 at Ripley.

But the closing came too late for about 120 vehicles, many of them commercial trucks. NITTEC traffic cameras earlier Tuesday showed vehicles stuck between the William Street exit and the I-190 interchange, around the Ridge Road exit, by the Blasdell exit and at the Route 219 exit.

As evening grew near Tuesday, Thruway officials could not give a timetable for when stranded vehicles and their occupants would be able to get off the highway.

“Obviously the first concern is the safety of motorists and the second concern would be the vehicles,” said the official.

The state said crews using snowmobiles, ATVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles headed to the stranded motorists and, if evacuation was requested, were able to move people to safety. But officials say many of the truckers did not want to abandon their vehicles on the highway.

In all, about 150 vehicles became stuck on the Thruway in a storm that hit hardest along a tight band of a roughly 4-mile stretch of the highway system.

Working with transportation agencies Monday in those states, officials in New York said highway warning signs were lit up in Pennsylvania and Ohio warning motorists heading in the direction of the Thruway of the snowstorm and the highway’s looming closing Monday night.

“We’re working our best ... to get to them,” said state police spokesman Matt Izbicki, who is based in Albany, of the stranded motorists.

He said it was too dangerous for drivers to be outside in the elements. Also, if they do leave their cars, troopers will have to search for them to make sure they’re safe. “It only slows things down,” Izbicki said.

If possible, troopers said drivers should brush off their cars as snow piles up so that their vehicles stay visible. Troopers said it was especially important to make sure to keep exhaust pipes clear of snow to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Lisa Winter, a bookkeeper for the Town of Eden, said she and her husband, a subforeman for the construction department for National Fuel, were keeping their windows scraped.

“I keep opening the door,” she said Tuesday afternoon, “so I can keep opening the door.”

The couple got some water from other stranded motorists, and they had some snacks. But after more than 14 hours in their truck, they were tired and hungry, and they wanted to go home.

“It wasn’t like we were totally unprepared. We have warm clothes, warm boots,” Lisa Winter said.

They were in the far left lane of three lanes of stopped traffic, about a half mile east of the Lackawanna toll barrier. A tractor-trailer apparently jackknifed, causing the back-up, then the snow kept falling. It was about 4 feet deep at 4 p.m.

“The Thruway snowplow is stuck,” she said. “There are two of them, right next to us.”

The NU basketball players were making the best of the situation on their stuck bus. They had a decent supply of granola bars, candy and Gatorade to get them through the night. They also made “mountain glacier water” out of the snow to drink.

“That’s what we’re picturing we’re making,” Faustin said.

They even took in another stranded motorist, a Town of Tonawanda man on his way home from Florida.

“So we’re just chilling,” Faustin said.

The stuck motorists brought to mind the December 2010 storm that stranded hundreds of motorists on the Thruway.

The Thruway Authority was widely criticized for its slow response. Less than a month after that, Andrew Cuomo, who wasn’t yet in the Governor’s Office when that storm hit, set in motion a series of responses that administration officials at the time said were to prevent such problems from happening again.

Among them were a host of changes in emergency response protocols, including making Thruway shutdown decisions a less centralized act involving its Albany headquarters and putting more responsibility in the hands of local transportation and law enforcement officials.

A number of gates were put up at entrances to the highway to make closing down the road more efficient.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com

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