Newnan resident has 24-hour journey home
by Sarah Fay Campbell
When Theresa James got an office email Tuesday at 12:30 telling everybody to go home, “I was just laughing. I looked outside and there was nothing. I had decided I was going to stay until at least 2.”
After all, James grew up in Chicago and felt pretty confident about driving on snow, especially light snow.
She had no idea that it would be more than 24 hours before she would arrive at her Newnan home.
James works at Taylor English Duma law firm in Cobb County, near the junction of Interstates 75 and 285.
She remembered looking out the window and seeing cars packed on Windy Ridge. As she was leaving at 2, the office security guard told her people were already abandoning their cars on the side of the road. A fellow co-worker had just walked back to the office, and she and the security guard, and others, were talking about spending the night at work. They told her if she was on the second floor of the parking garage, she’d never get out. She was.
“I said, ‘I’m going to try it and see if I can’t get out of the garage, and if I can’t, I’ll stay.’”
“Again, I was being cocky,” said James on Thursday. “I was like — I just don’t understand you people! It was terrible. I was so rude,” she said.
On the way out, she grabbed two bottles of water, an apple and an orange. Her intention was to show them to her family when she got home so she could brag about being prepared.
James said Thursday that she is still cold, even though she’s been under a pile of blankets since she got home Wednesday afternoon.
She had just gotten over being sick, but a nasty cough has returned. She made it out of the parking garage, and, about three hours later, she made it two miles to Hwy. 41, where she accessed I-285. People were struggling up hills and not making it, but James could see 285 in the distance and it looked like traffic was moving.
It was moving — but slowly. “I would go maybe a car length at a time and then stop,” James said. When she passed Langford Parkway and was almost to Camp Creek, “I was cocky the whole time. Because I thought, well, I’m almost there.”
Then, she saw an ambulance trying to get on 285. It spun completely around. She moved about three more car lengths and … “that was all she wrote… that is where we sat all night."
James had left her cell phone charger at work, and her phone was going dead. She had used almost all of her gas making it the few miles from work. She was wearing high-heeled boots and leggings. “I had a cape and a scarf and I found a towel from the gym and that was it.”
Since she was almost out of gas, she’d start the car every hour or so and turn on the heat and seat warmers “until I couldn’t stand it,” then turn everything back off.
It was a little “spooky” that night. It reminded her of the TV show “The Walking Dead.”
“After awhile your mind starts playing tricks on you. You’re waiting for some walking dead to come through. I locked my doors,” she said.
Early the next morning, a few motorists walked ahead to see what was going on. “They said there were nine cars and a couple of semi-trucks” wrecked, blocking the road. “And there was nobody there. No police, no National Guard.”
As word spread, everybody started to get out of their cars. They didn’t think help would be coming anytime soon. James couldn’t walk in her boots. Luckily, she found some “pool shoes” in the car that she changed into. With those shoes, her leggings, and her cape, “I looked quite the picture, I’m sure,” she said.
She saw two older ladies get out of a vehicle in front of her. One of them had to grab a cane. The woman fell, and everybody helped her up.
“There were a lot of saints out there. Everybody was helping everybody,” James said. “It was amazing. Nobody knew anybody on that road. You saw people going and checking on people — the older drivers, those with children.” James found a Christmas blanket in her car and gave it to a man with children. Another man loaned her a phone charger.
“If you were going to be out there, that was the best group to be stranded with.”
Unknown to her, back home, her son and his friends were trying to help her, and so was her boss. “People were looking for snowmobiles, four-wheelers. There were all these people trying to come get me, but there was no way they could find me."
James was out of gas by this time so she joined several people walking along Camp Creek Parkway to a RaceTrac station. When she arrived, James discovered that instead of grabbing her purse, she had her computer bag — and no money. A man was there filling up three gas cans, and offered to put one in her car. His name was Terry.
The gas station was a “madhouse,” James said. The people there who were not stranded “looked at us like we were lepers.” As throngs walked back to the interstate, “nobody would stop, nobody would help.”
“We tried to flag down at least three people. They looked like they were going to stop and then they drove off."
It was a strange contrast to how helpful everyone had been on 285.
At one point along the interstate, she saw a pile of coats and windbreakers that someone had put out to help those stranded. There was a man who had walked to the gas station earlier and bought “a whole lot of snacks, and he was walking and handing out snacks and stuff to the cars."
As they neared their vehicles, James could see the National Guard had finally arrived and was working to clear the road.
Traffic could start to move, but everyone had to work their way around all the vehicles on the road that had been abandoned.
After that, it was pretty smooth sailing. James was worried about the ramp from 285 to 85, but it was OK. The roads were barren by then. Ahead, James saw a car she thought was moving. She soon found out it was stuck in the middle of the interstate.
Fortunately for James, the gas Terry had given her was enough to get her home. When she got off I-85 in Coweta, all the gas stations were closed.
When she finally got home, her husband, her son and his friend had been waiting and praying. “I was hugged by everybody. They had a fire going for me. I had slippers brought and blankets and robes. I just kind of sat on the couch in a mound of blankets and warm things.”
From what James could see, the big problem was all the traffic on the roads. “The snow trucks couldn’t come because everybody was on the roads,” she said. The amazing part was that no officials responded that night. James recalled another woman calling up a radio station and saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, the National Guard and the police — we saw nobody.”
In the future, “I’m definitely making sure I pack a much better survival pack for my car,” James said. Her mother is ordering survival food for James and her son to keep in their vehicles. “And we’re going to get blankets. I’m not going to be caught like I was this year.” She’ll also make sure she has a full tank of gas, a charger for her phone, warm clothes.
And a better pair of boots. “I may know how to drive in it,” James said. But all of the driving skills in the world “couldn’t have helped me get out of that.”
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Gas stations and truck stops around the area were often a place that drivers stopped off during the snow, including the stations south of Newnan at exit 41.
“We had more truckers than I have ever seen,” said Aurelia Robinson at the Greenway BP on U.S. 29 South in Newnan. “I haven’t been home since Tuesday,” Robinson said Thursday morning.
“It was full. It was fun. They kept it fun and entertaining,” said fellow worker Nancy Ledbetter.
Employees saw other customers helping others by buying food and supplies. And the El Taquito restaurant inside was open the whole time.
“We had very good business with all the people and drivers around,” said owner Jaime Gonzalez. “People who lived close would come eat here because everything was closed,” he said.