NEW YORK — Thousands of travelers trying to get home after the holiday weekend sat bored and bleary-eyed in airports and shivered aboard stuck buses and subway trains Monday, stranded by a blizzard that slammed the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow.
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"People are exhausted. They want to get home," sighed Eric Schorr, marooned at New York's Kennedy Airport since Sunday afternoon by the storm, which worked its way up the coast from the Carolinas to Maine with winds up to 80 mph that whirled the snow into deep drifts across streets, railroad tracks and runways.
Snowfall totals included a foot in Tidewater, Va., and Philadelphia, 29 inches in parts of northern New Jersey, 2 feet north of New York City, and more than 18 inches in Boston.
The storm closed all three of the New York metropolitan area's airports Sunday and stymied most other means of transportation. Buses sputtered to a halt in snow drifts. Trains stopped in their tracks. Taxi drivers abandoned their cabs in the middle of New York's snow-clogged streets. Even the New York City subway system — usually dependable during a snowstorm — broke down in spots, trapping riders for hours.
By Monday evening, planes had begun landing at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. Flights were expected to begin arriving at the airport in Newark, N.J., later in the night.
A Royal Jordanian flight touched down shortly before 7 p.m. at Kennedy, the first to arrive since the blizzard hit, said Steve Coleman, of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airports.
Just before an Air Canada flight from Toronto touched down at LaGuardia about 40 minutes later, the captain came over the loudspeaker and informed passengers that it was the first to land at the airport since the blizzard hit.
"Everyone was clapping toward the end," said Patrick Wacker, 37, who had been stranded in Toronto for a day while trying to get back to New York after visiting his parents in Frankfurt, Germany.
Wacker and other deplaning passengers said there was some turbulence on landing and the plane had to be towed to the gate because it couldn't get through the snow on the runway.
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Some 5,000 flights were canceled across the country over the last two days due to airport closures in the Northeast, while commuters struggled on roads and rails — especially in the New York City area.
Some stranded travelers got cots and blankets; others said they were not allowed to retrieve their checked luggage and had no extra clothing or toiletries.
"There are maybe 200 folding cots for 1,000 people," traveler Lance Jay Brown, 67, said from JFK's Terminal 8 on Monday. "I paid $50 for three hot chocolates, a couple of candy bars and two sandwiches, and I was happy to get a sandwich. There are dozens of people twisted out of shape with frustration."Blizzard condensed into 40 seconds
Some airline passengers could be stuck for days. Many planes are booked solid because of the busy holiday season , and airlines are operating fewer flights because of the economic downturn.
"It usually takes three to five days to re-accommodate everyone," said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. "Many passengers decide to get a refund and not travel."
"It's the passengers that have already been waiting that are going to be waiting a long time," added Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor at Travelocity. "Everyone who has been stranded needs to fit into available seats."
Glen MacDonnell, AAA's director of travel services, advised patience and noted that "airlines are not obligated to put you up in a hotel or to feed you because of weather."
At the Manchester Boston Regional Airport outside Manchester, N.H., 25-year-old Alicia Kinney slept overnight on benches in the baggage claim area before moving to the food court for a soda in the morning.
"I'm trying to stay positive," she said.
The blizzard had a ripple effect on air travel, stranding thousands of people at airports around the country.
"I know the Northeast was hit by snow. I get it. But still, this is Monday and I still haven't gotten a flight yet," said Sam Rogers, who had planned to fly back to New York on Sunday after visiting his brother in Charlotte, N.C., for the holiday. He was supposed to be back Monday at the mortgage company where he works, but no one was answering the phone at his office. "I guess they took a snow day, too."
The storm was New York City's sixth worst since 1869, when records began, said Adrienne Leptich, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
NYC mayor defends cleanup
At New York's Central Park, snow was 20 inches deep. Giant piles were on the sidewalks where snow plows cleared the streets. Some motorists who were able to dig their cars out from the snow were left spinning their wheels on unplowed streets.
Buses were knocked out as well, cabs were little more than a myth and those who tried walking were assailed with a hard, frigid wind that made snowflakes sting like needles.
As bad as the storm was, it could have been worse if it had been an ordinary work day. Children are home from school all week on Christmas vacation, and lots of people had taken off from work.
Many youngsters went out and frolicked in the snow, some of them using the sleds they got for Christmas.
Many side streets in New York City remained unplowed well into the day, and pedestrians stumbled over drifts and trudged through knee-deep snow in some places. Numerous people simply gave up trying to use the sidewalks, instead walking down the middle of partially plowed streets. Some New Yorkers complained that snowplow crews were neglecting neighborhoods in the outer boroughs in favor of Manhattan.Story: New Yorkers upset about unplowed streets
A testy Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the city's cleanup effort, saying the furious pace of the snowfall — 2 to 3 inches per hour — required crews to plow streets repeatedly to keep them open. And abandoned cars slowed the process further because plows could not get through, he said.
"It's being handled by the best professionals in the business," Bloomberg said, urging people not to get upset. "It's a snowstorm, and it really is inconvenient for a lot of people."
In Monmouth County, N.J., state troopers carried water and food to people marooned on two passenger buses carrying about 50 people on the Garden State Parkway, where stranded cars cluttering ramps stymied snow plows and ambulances, state police spokesman Steve Jones told NBC's TODAY show.
One bus was freed by 7 a.m. and the other was freed soon after that. Passengers reported no major medical problems.Story: Along coast, storm's stranded tell their stories
In Philadelphia, cab driver Farid Senoussaoui described navigating the slippery conditions as "like a video game." Senoussaoui had worked overnight during the storm and said passengers were universally grateful when he would stop to pick them up.
"The first word you hear is, 'Thank you very much,'" Senoussaoui said.
In New England, many commuters heeded the call to stay off the roads. In greater Boston, highways into the city were nearly abandoned early Monday as many workers were given the day off and others were on vacation for the holiday week.
In Virginia, the National Guard had to rescue three people trapped in a car for more than four hours in the Eastern Shore area.
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Winter storm Dion was expected to hit vast areas east of the Rockies Sunday, after having left hundreds of thousands of people in Texas and Arkansas without power.
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Not even professional hockey players could beat the frozen conditions. The Toronto Maple Leafs, after defeating the New Jersey Devils 4-1 in Newark, N.J., got stuck in traffic for four hours on their way to the team hotel. It was supposed to be a 20-minute ride. Center Tyler Bozak tweeted in one middle-of-the-night dispatch: "Roads closed in new jersey stuck on the bussss. Brutaallll!!"
Rails: Commuter lines down at rush hour
In New York City, skies started clearing just before the morning commute, but subway traffic was sporadic and the Metro-North commuter rail connecting the city to its northern suburbs was suspended.
"I've never seen anything like this," said John Harris of New Rochelle after getting out of a taxi. "Normally it takes me about 20 to 30 minutes to drive to work but I was stuck in traffic for almost two hours before I decided to just get off at the nearest exit and get on a train. Then I find out there's no Metro-North trains moving so I end up shelling out around $40 to take a cab to work."
"It's one thing if you shut down a few trains for service but how on earth are you going to shut down all the trains during rush hour?," added Chris Alvarez, one of about 100 people huddled in a Metro-North station in Harlem. "I can't believe this, man, these people (in the transit authority) act like none of us have jobs to go to."Story: Your images of East Coast blizzard
Christopher Mullen was among several hundred New York City subway riders stranded for several hours aboard a cold train Monday. "I just huddled with my girlfriend. We just tried to stay close," he said.
The train was stopped by snow drifts on the tracks and ice on the electrified third rail. It took hours to rescue the passengers because crews first tried to push the train, and when that didn't work, a snow-covered diesel locomotive had to be dug out of a railyard and brought in to move it.
Amtrak passenger rail service between New York and Boston, suspended Sunday night, was finally restored early Monday afternoon.
Getting around cities in the Northeast was an adventure. In one Brooklyn neighborhood, cars drove the wrong way up a one-way street because it was the only plowed thoroughfare in the area. In Philadelphia, pedestrians dodged chunks of ice blown off skyscrapers.
New York taxi driver Shafqat Hayat spent the night in his cab on 33rd Street in Manhattan, unable to move his vehicle down the unplowed road. "I've seen a lot of snow before, but on the roads, I've never seen so many cars stuck in 22 years," he said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.