Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
When northern Illinois’ third-biggest-ever snowfall made normally broad, smooth highways impassable even to ambulances and left hundreds of cars stuck in a gridlock of unplowable, wind-driven snowdrifts Tuesday night, heroes often rode snowmobiles. And they weren’t always official emergency workers.
Perhaps the most dramatic rescue came after a Hampshire resident suffering from what Hampshire Fire Protection District officials would describe only as a “serious medical issue” called for help at 9:20 p.m. The paramedics checked the patient and set off for Sherman Hospital in Elgin, 12 miles to the east. But the patient, whose name and fate were not revealed because of the federal HIPAA privacy rules, wouldn’t get there until 2 a.m., almost five hours later.
“The ambulance had a snowplow along as an escort, but when they got to about the corner of Big Timber Road and Route 72, the snowplow itself got stuck,” fire Capt. Trevor Herrmann said.
The ambulance crewmen got on their radio and arranged for a snowmobile owned by the Kane County Forest Preserve District to come to their location, towing a sled. They bundled up the patient in blankets and loaded him or her onto the sled. The snowmobile towed the sled a mile or two to the Gilberts station of the Rutland & Dundee Townships Fire Protection District. There they lifted the person into a four-wheel-drive vehicle the Rutland-Dundee people had secured for the storm and it was able to press on through the snow to the hospital.
Meanwhile, back on Route 47 between Starks Corners and Huntley, 10 members of the Hampshire White Riders Snowmobile Club spent all night comforting and/or rescuing people in about 50 cars and trucks that had become stuck in snowdrifts or ditches. The 10 ordinary folks — age 19 to 40-something who joined the club because they just like playing on motorized sleds — had offered their help to the Kane County Emergency Services and Disaster Agency when they heard a blizzard was coming. At 9:15 p.m., a call came from Geneva, telling coordinator Scott Haseman that a giant mess had developed along 47.
“It was tough,” said club member Terry Wellmann, who makes his living as a software engineer. “Some cars had slid into ditches. Some had just been unable to go forward any farther. There were semis. One state snowplow had tried to go around the stalled cars and had slid into a ditch itself.”
Checking in at the Starks Crossing BP service station, where a handful of sheriff’s deputies and off-duty emergency medical technicians and Pingree Grove cops were hanging out, the snowmobilers learned that those marooned in the vehicles included a 2-year-old with diabetes. They drove along the highway, knocking on the windows of each car and truck, until they found the little girl, learned she was doing all right and dropped a cache of candy to her mother.
“At each car, we asked if the people had any medical situations or were about to run out of gas,” Wellmann said. “Most had their engines running so they could run the heater. Then we went back down the line and asked if people wanted to be taken back to the gas station. Most said they wanted to stay with their cars.”
“A lot of them said, ‘That’s OK, a plow will be coming soon to get me out,’ said Dwain Stadie, the heating and air conditioning man who serves as club president. “We had to say, ‘Uh, no, there won’t be.’ After a few hours, more and more of them decided they wanted to get taken home.”
“The wind was blowing the snow so hard, we couldn’t see,” Haseman said. “A few times our snowmobiles even got stuck and we had to dig each other out. The guy in one car said he was a private detective and was used to sitting in his car all night, doing stakeouts.”
The White Riders said they were shocked by how ill-prepared many of the trapped drivers were for a blizzard. “One woman was cold and agreed I should take her back to the gas station,” Stadie said. “She stepped out of her car and all she had on was a dress and heels. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Your bare knees are gonna be frost-bitten before we get to the corner. Get back in the car until we figure some way to cover you.”
“I’ll bet a lot of these people will be putting an emergency kit in their trunks now with a good hat and coat and blanket,” Stadie said.
“The mother finally decided to send the 2-year-old diabetic girl back to the gas station,” Stadie said. “She just giggled and laughed on my lap as we rode. But a 4-year-old I drove back was screaming the whole way. She was terrified by this guy in a helmet that looked like Darth Vader, with cold wind and snow blowing in her face.”
When the clubbers decided to call it a night at about 6 a.m., they rode up Route 20 toward the Hampshire truck stops. More stalled cars led to a spot where a mountainous pile of compressed, plowed snow finally had stopped all plowing efforts cold.
“It was like the piles of snow you see plowed into the corner of a shopping center parking lot. But this was maybe 20 feet high and it was right in the middle of Route 20,” Wellmann said.
Pingree Grove Police Chief Carol Lussky said Pingree Grove officers at the BP station drove the marooned drivers home in a Dodge Durango SUV if they lived in Pingree Grove. “If they lived somewhere else, they were on their own” to find a way home, Lussky said.
Herrmann said Route 72 remained closed from French Road to New Lebanon Road late Wednesday afternoon, with dozens of cars still locked into snowdrifts 5 feet deep or more along the road. About 50 people had spent the whole night in those cars, Herrmann said, finally being taken out by firefighters on borrowed snowmobiles after dawn Wednesday. Some were taken to a warming center set up at First United Methodist Church in Hampshire.
Herrmann said three sick people who called for an ambulance in the Hampshire district could not be reached at all overnight because the roads to them were impassable by either ambulance or snowmobile. He said none of those patients seemed to be in critical condition and, conferring with paramedics over the phone, each agreed to wait until later Wednesday to be taken to a hospital.
Back to normal
Main streets through Elgin were almost back to normal by Wednesday afternoon. But Elgin-area plows were just getting started on side streets following the third-biggest snowstorm in the Chicago area’s last 125 years.
“The main streets are in unbelievably good condition, as you can see from some photos people have posted on our Facebook page,” Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall said. He said he couldn’t even estimate when all side streets will be plowed, but a shift of plow drivers went on duty at 10 a.m. and would continue through 6 p.m.
“Our biggest challenge is west of Randall Road in areas like Providence subdivision, where the country is open and the wind is causing lots of drifting,” Stegall said Wednesday afternoon. Like many of the Elgin employees involved in the snow-clearance, he said, “my day started at 6 a.m. yesterday.”
Pingree Grove’s Lussky said a gridlock situation similar to that seen in the 1967 Chicago blizzard developed overnight on many rural roads, as stalled cars kept snowplows from getting through and the snowplows therefore couldn’t free the stalled cars. She said Kane County officials Wednesday were coordinating teams of tow trucks and plow trucks to work together to clear each road by towing out each stalled car, then plowing until they reach the next car.
Lussky and Stegall urged drivers to keep off the roads. “There’s nowhere to go anyway. Everything’s closed,” Stegall said, only half-joking.
The northern Fox Valley actually took less punishment from Mother Nature than much of the Chicago area did. Stegall said Elgin itself got 14 to 16 inches of snow, “depending on where in the city you were,” and wind gusted up to 40 or 50 mph.
By comparison, according to the National Weather Service, O’Hare Airport recorded 20.2 inches. Wind gusts reached 61 mph at O’Hare and 67 mph – nearly hurricane-level — along the Chicago lakefront.
The 20.2-inch Chicago snow total ranked the storm the third biggest to hit the central city. It was exceeded only by the 23-inch snow on Jan. 26-27, 1967, and a 21.6-inch snowfall on Jan. 1-2, 1999.
Schools closed again
By early afternoon Wednesday, school districts U46, 300, 301 and 303 and Elgin Community College had decided to cancel school today for a second straight day.
“Even though the snow has stopped, we need to give additional time for roads to be cleared and sidewalks to be shoveled in order to ensure the safety of students and staff,” Tony Sanders, Elgin School District U46 spokesperson, said in a written statement.
And Michael Bregy, superintendent-elect of Community Unit School District 300, said in a message to families those conditions can vary widely across the Carpentersville-based district’s 118 square miles. Each principal in District 300 will send a separate message telling parents whether after-school practices, performances and competitions will be held as planned, Bregy added.
Area towns were still dealing with the storm’s aftermath late Wednesday.
While a majority of residents seemed to cooperate — staying off the streets and indoors until the storm cleared — some cars were being towed to help the public works department get streets cleared, South Elgin Police Chief Chris Merritt said.
“We really do commend people. It seems like they heeded the warnings and stayed inside,” he said.
Before towing, police officers did try to knock on doors and ask residents to move their cars, he said. If officers couldn’t make it to the doors, or if residents couldn’t be found, the cars were towed. Residents will have to pay to get their cars back.
There were a few instances Tuesday night where people got stuck, either in snow or trying to get up hills, “but we got them out pretty quick,” Merritt said.
All of South Elgin’s snow removal crews were working Wednesday morning, said Chuck Behm, public works director, adding that they worked through the night as well.
“We did many of them over and over, but they all filled in overnight,” he said.
Don’t try this
Officer John Theis of the East Dundee Police Department wondered aloud Wednesday, “People are out there in their Toyotas and Tauruses, and it’s like, ‘What possessed you to try this?’ ”
That led to a number of cars in ditches along roads in the Dundee area — at least a half-dozen at one time along Route 72 east of Route 25, Theis said. East Dundee police still were waiting on a state snow plow to dig out those vehicles early Wednesday afternoon, he added.
And there were a “handful of cars going off the road in various places” in Carpentersville, although no one intersection seemed worse than others, according to police Commander Erman Blevins. Acting Police Chief Andy Wieteska said the same of West Dundee.
No one was injured in any of those accidents, police said. All roads in West Dundee were “passable” by early Wednesday afternoon, and all primary routes in Carpentersville, plowed, officials added.
“We just need people to slow down,” Blevins said.
An electrical transformer failed, which caused a power outage from 7 p.m. Tuesday to 1 a.m. Wednesday on the east side of Carpentersville, according to Fire Chief John Schuldt. But the Carpentersville Fire Department received only one weather-related call when a private contractor’s snow plow caught fire, Schuldt added.
Other than that, West Dundee’s Wieteska said, “This being one of the largest snow events we’ve had in history, things have gone remarkably well.”
East Dundee’s Theis said most Dundee-area residents had heeded the advice to stay off the roads and stay home, but had they ventured out, at least one major destination was closed for the day. Spring Hill Mall, at routes 72 and 31 in West Dundee, closed early at 5 p.m. Tuesday and remained closed Wednesday. The mall was scheduled to reopen at 10 a.m. today, representatives said.
Carpentersville Village Hall also was closed Wednesday and the regular Tuesday night Carpentersville Village Board meeting there was rescheduled to 6:30 p.m. today.
Hospitals on duty
A disaster event was called Tuesday afternoon by management at Provena Saint Joseph Hospital in Elgin, said Heather Gates, marketing director there.
“That means a special protocol is put in place that includes a command center where periodic update meetings were held through the night” to update the situation, she said.
A room was set up specifically for visitors, family and community members who were stranded at the hospital so they had a safe place to go, Gates said.
Rather than attempting to drive home, more than 100 staff stayed over to assure staffing on Wednesday, she said. Security personnel also helped some staffers get to work on Wednesday, as did spouses, and Kane County emergency personnel also braved the storm to pick up and bring physicians to the hospital, including an anesthesiologist.
The emergency department on Wednesday was seeing an increase in traffic, she added.
“The Emergency Department census is increasing as more people are experiencing snow-recovery related injuries like shoveling chest pain and snow-play injuries,” Gates said.
Sherman Hospital and Sherman Immediate Care Centers also remained open and ready for work, the hospital said in a release. The Sherman Birthing Center proved it was business as usual, too, welcoming 10 “Blizzard Babies” into the world.
Throughout the night, 128 staff members, 10 physicians, 44 leaders, and Sherman President and CEO Rick Floyd were on hand to serve the more than 200 patients at the hospital. Staff slept wherever they could — on cots, air mattresses, patient beds, or couches — to make sure they were rested and ready, according to the release. Sherman’s Food and Nutrition Services team served meals to those who weathered the storm in the hospital, and each staff member received a personal hygiene toiletry kit to remain clean and refreshed for their night of work.
“I was really struck by the helpful, collegial and very positive mood of everyone who was here throughout the night,” stated Linda Deering, Sherman’s executive vice president and COO, who also remained at the hospital overnight. “Everything went so smoothly, and that was because of the hard work that our employees and leaders did in advance of the storm to ensure we were staffed appropriately.”
There was no shortage of personnel at the hospital, which was staffed for both overnight and first shift.
The Postal Service announced that mail delivery was stopped and retail operations closed in the 600, 601, 602, 603, 610 and 611 ZIP Code areas Wednesday. Customers can call their local post office, call 1-800-ASK-USPS, or go to usps.com for more information about delivery and retail operations.
“The safety of our postal employees and customers is of the utmost importance to us,” Northern Illinois District Manager Robert Hart said. “Therefore, we are respecting the requests of local municipalities and the Illinois Department of Transportation regarding road closures and other transportation restrictions.”
Full delivery and retail services will resume when weather conditions have returned to normal and the roads are safe for travel, he said.
Staff writer Emily McFarlan and correspondent Janelle Walker contributed to this report.