Cowetans spend night on road, in car

by W. Winston Skinner

Some commuting Cowetans spent hours in their vehicles as Tuesday turned to Wednesday — stuck in gridlock in metro Atlanta as snow and ice quickly covered roads and made them impassable.

More than one of them referred to the experience as “the perfect storm.”

“It was a harrowing experience,” said Cowetan Jim Holt. He described the situation as “a perfect storm of everybody getting released at the same time” just when the roads began to ice.

Holt, who works for Georgia Power and left his office in the Lithonia area Tuesday afternoon, said he was “very lucky” because he was “one of the folks who got through it and got out of it.”

Still, it took Holt around seven hours to make a trip that usually lasts about 45 minutes.

When Holt finally got home about 9:30 p.m., he found he could not get his car up his driveway. He pulled the emergency brake, turned on his flashers and parked the car as close to the curb as possible. “It just slid out into the road,” he said.

There the car remained — “parked” — for more than a day.

Commuters identified several issues that led to the long ride home:

• Inclines were too steep for tractor-trailers, which jack-knifed or slid into other vehicles, creating blockages at places where large volumes of traffic converged.

• People abandoned vehicles on the interstates, making it impossible for others to get through even when conditions improved.

• There were few law enforcement officers in the area, and trucks with sand or other remedies apparently did not arrive at needed locations before they were already impassable.

• Predictions had been that there would be snow and ice in south Georgia, but the storm turned a bit northward and hit Coweta County and metro Atlanta hard.

Woody Tripp, a regional sales manager for a food distributor, spent the entire night Tuesday dealing with weather-related traffic issues. “I was actually on my way up to Knoxville,” he said.

“When you travel as much as I do, you check your weather — and you check your phone,” Tripp said. He had already seen reports for a south Georgia freeze. “I’ll be north of all that,” he thought.

About 11:30 a.m., Tripp could see the road ahead of him was freezing. He called his company’s Knoxville office and learned there were already 2 inches of snow there, so he turned around and headed back toward Coweta County.

He often takes a route starting on Barrett Parkway to get home, and he called his wife from there about noon. “An hour later I had driven a mile,” he said. Tripp made a U-turn — hoping to get to I-75. When he reached the interstate, Tripp stopped to get gas.

“I had driven two miles in three hours,” he said.

About 3:30 p.m., he got back on the road. His GPS system kept urging him to take side roads, but he decided to stay on I-75. It took him three hours to travel to the next exit.

Tripp figured there was a major pileup where I-285 and I-75 meet. He called his wife again and decided to try to get home via Cobb Parkway. His GPS suggested he try Highway 280. He traveled about a mile and then came to a stop. “I’m literally 150 yards from where the lights are.”

Eventually, he learned all four vehicles at the intersection just ahead were stalled. He was able to turn around and get back toward Cobb Parkway — around 8 p.m. On Cobb Parkway, there were abandoned cars and tractor-trailers blocking the way.

Tripp is from Virginia and has driven in hilly country when the temperatures are cold. He is a Boy Scout leader who believes in being prepared. He decided it was time to “camp” for the night.

It was about 10:30 p.m. when he spotted a well-lighted shopping center near Powder Springs. He stopped there and saw the kindness of people. A restaurant opened — not to serve food — but to let people sleep in the building. Tripp chose not to go and also was stopped by a woman and her children who asked him if he wanted to come to their home to sleep about 12:30. When he declined, the woman encouraged him to be safe.

He remembered — about 2 a.m. — seeing a police car and a bus with children aboard pass near him.

Feeling restless, Tripp got back on I-75 and stopped at a Waffle House about 3:30 a.m. Some of the servers had been there since the midnight shift the day before, but everyone was congenial. “Nobody was yelling their food was wrong.”

He later stopped by a Hampton Inn where he had been the day before for a business meeting. The motel had opened lobbies and meeting rooms, and staff were bringing blankets. “They were feeding everybody — taking care of everybody,” Tripp said.

Holt, who headed around I-285 toward I-85, recalled, “There were literally times for at least two hours when we didn’t even move an inch.

There is “a long steep grade uphill” as 285 feeds into 85, Holt said. Tractor-trailer rigs “were jackknifing,” he said. “They were sliding into other vehicles.”

Truck driver Johnny Martin left Adairsville about 1 p.m. on Tuesday. He was able to make it almost 50 miles before he had to stop. “The problem was all the abandoned cars. They just left their cars,” he said.

Martin was stuck for the next 11 hours and 26 minutes. Eventually, wreckers came to move the abandoned cars. “People pushed them out of the way,” he said.

When he was able to move again, Martin made the 40 miles to Atlanta’s south side in about an hour and then traveled another hour to reach his home near Luthersville.

Cassi Buran said an anonymous Good Samaritan helped her get home. Buran works in Dunwoody near Perimeter Mall. She left work about 12:20 p.m. It took her 40 minutes to get to I-285, a process that usually takes five minutes.

She moved slowly — traveling at 5-10 miles per hour — until she reached the Interstate 20 interchange. “After I-20, it pretty much came to a standstill,” Buran said.

When she finally had to stop moving entirely, it was about 3:40 p.m. Buran was stuck at that point — near Camp Creek Parkway — until about 3 a.m.

That’s when the man wearing the yellow “event staff” jacket began knocking on windows near her. He was waking drivers and getting them to follow him as he led them around an obstacle course of large, stalled trucks. The trucks were “in every direction… in every single lane.”

She carefully maneuvered — “trying not to skid” — and in about 20 minutes she was headed toward I-85. Buran had known she was only a couple of miles from I-85 and that the southbound highway “was wide open.” She made it home about 4:30 a.m.

Ted Williams, who works in Smyrna, had a similar experience. He left for home about 3:50 p.m. Tuesday and said traffic “slowed to a crawl” when he neared the I-20 interchange. The crawl became a complete stop around Langford Parkway.

“Fortunately, I had Netflix, so I could watch movies and play games,” Williams said. At one point, he made a trip on foot to a RaceTrac on Camp Creek Parkway.

Friends know Williams — who eventually spent more than 22 hours in his car — as someone with a relaxed personality, which served him well. Getting upset “wasn’t going to change the situation,” he said.

Williams said his aunt lives near Langford Parkway, and he could have spent the night there — if he could have gotten there. “I’d already gone too far,” he said.

The only law enforcement vehicle Holt saw on his way home was a Georgia State Patrol cruiser — trapped in the mass of vehicles with everyone else.

“I never saw any service vehicles,” Holt said.

He then added that such vehicles would have been unable to function. “By the time everybody was in it, it was too late anyway,” he said.

“It was an unnerving experience for me,” Holt said. “Once you got trapped in it, there was no way to get out of it.”

A high point for Tripp was getting to see “how nice Atlanta started being” as the all-night commute stretched into morning.

Williams, who has young children, did not let his long night in the car keep him from enjoying the fluffy white stuff in his yard. Soon after he got home — about 2:15 p.m. Wednesday — “the girls and Jennifer and I went out to play in the snow,” he said.

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