The Ottumwa Courier

December 11, 2013

Editor stranded in ice storm experiences truest form of humanity

by James Bright
CNHI News Service

— The last week brought horrors in the form of winter weather to Oklahoma and Texas. Snow and ice covered more than 300 miles of land and left many stranded in terrifying situations. I was one such person. A foolish drive left me alone with my car stuck on a steep hill of a back road, covered in ice with temperatures falling into the low 20s. But as is the case with any horror story, heroes emerged to aid the helpless.

I began driving from Oklahoma City at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 7. My goal was to reach my family in Rockwall, Texas, before dark. It’s roughly a 225 mile trek and on average takes 3 hours 15 minutes to complete. This time it took more than eight times that.

I was no more than five miles into the Lone Star State when the roads turned to pure ice. What has been called cobblestone ice forced traffic to a crawl, and bounced cars all over the highway. Every passing mile was accompanied by a holocaust of vehicles abandoned by their drivers.

I was forced to find an alternate route, which led me to Highway 82, where a jackknifed semi-truck blocked a bridge 1/2 mile up the road, making it impassable. Exhausted and hungry, I drove to a gas station, where an attendant told me that an even smaller road, Highway 56, would take me to I-75. I bought some food and continued my quest.

I made it five miles when I approached a hill. I had just made my way up a similar slope, so assumed I would be fine. I hit it at 25 mph, sliding and turning into various skids the whole way. The ditches on both sides were more than 20 feet deep. As I approached the top of the hill, my car stopped. It began to slip backward. Slowly, I started approaching one of the drop offs, and my automobile didn’t respond to any of my commands.

I applied the emergency brake and put the car in park at the bottom of the hill. I stepped outside and was greeted with a blast of cold wind. I called the police, but they said they couldn’t get to me tonight. I called several tow services, all of which did not have vehicles that could make it up the slope that stopped me.  Fear filled my head. Nothing in my life has scared me more than hearing, “We can’t get to you,” from the police.

I tried one more service, Happy Dave’s Wrecker Service. Owner Dave Blaylock answered the phone and lived up to the name of his company. He told me with a jovial sound in his voice, “I’ll be there in 20 minutes.” True to his word, Blaylock arrived, hopped out of his truck and attached a cable to my car while cracking jokes. Naturally I thought, “Of course you’re happy. You’re the only game in town. You can charge whatever you want.” Blaylock towed my car to the top of the hill and helped park the vehicle in a small lot. He looked at me, smiled and said, “That’ll be $25.”

I was stunned. Then, he offered to take me to a local community center where volunteers set up a shelter for those stranded by the storm. I happily accepted.

I walked into the shelter at the Whitesboro, Texas, Community Center and was greeted with smiles. Volunteers asked me my name, took me to a cot and offered me soup, which I graciously accepted.

There were about 30 people who took refuge at the shelter. All had the same bewildered and exhausted look about their faces, despite age. We were all connected by an incredible experience.

I fell asleep on a cot, waking only once when a volunteer placed a Red Cross blanket over my body. Apparently I had been shivering.

The morning greeted me with the scent of breakfast. Some of the same volunteers that were helping people the night before were still there, serving us biscuits, gravy, sausage, eggs and coffee.

That morning, I joined volunteers from the First Baptist Church of Whitesboro in helping to move the community shelter to the church, merging us with a larger camp. Later, one of the people I met, Chris Clark, offered to help me move my car from the icy parking lot. He helped me push it out and led me back to the shelter, never getting farther than 15 yards away from me.

After lunch, I spoke with two highway patrol officers. They told me Highway 56 was icy, but passable. I thanked them and my new friends at the shelter, and set off, arriving safely at my destination later that night.  

I am in no way a religious man. I like to say I’m a deist that masquerades as an agnostic. But the people I met during this grand adventure showed me what it means to care for your brothers. They showed me the beauty of truly practicing what you preach. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience an event like this again, but should I ever start to lose faith in humanity, I have a group of people I was lucky enough to meet that will quickly restore it.

James Bright is the editor of the Chickasha, Okla., Express-Star.