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updated 12/27/2010 8:37:07 PM ET 2010-12-28T01:37:07

It took hours for Christopher Mullen to get off a plane from sunny Cancun and on to a half-empty subway car, his only way home. It would be another eight hours and more — a night spent huddled under a thin blanket on the frigid, grungy car — before he could get off the A train.

His feet soaked to the bone, with no food, water and hardly any heat, Mullen and 400 others lived through a New York nightmare on an elevated subway track, one of hundreds of stories of hardship caused by the crushing snowstorm that dropped more than 2 feet of snow on the Northeast.

Blizzard condensed into 40 seconds

By the time they got on the subway shortly before 1 a.m. Monday near Kennedy Airport, Mullen and his girlfriend were well into their ordeal battling the blizzard of December 2010.

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Their flight landed two hours late. With snow whirling around the terminal, the airport train was down. There were no taxis. Wearing just a light spring jacket, Mullen stood in the snow and attempted to dig his car out from long-term parking. The only result: feet and legs that were soaking wet.

When the couple — their diving gear and luggage in tow — boarded the A train more than six hours after clearing Customs, it seemed that they were finally on their way. But the subway got only one stop before it was forced to stop by snow drifts piled on the outside tracks and thick layers of ice on the electrified third rail.

At first, it seemed the delay might be brief. A loudspeaker announcement said that a train up ahead was stuck on the track due to the weather and they were being held back. But the minutes stretched into hours.

The train was in the station, but in the dark of night with bus service down and car services shuttered, there was nowhere for passengers to go. Train operators kept the doors closed to keep out the cold, but the gusting winds rattled the windows and the chill of the storm seeped into the car, overpowering the faint stream of warm air coming from the subway car's feeble heaters. It wasn't quite cold enough for water in the car to freeze, but it felt nearly that bad.

The 400 on Mullen's train were unlucky, but they were not alone. The blizzard left thousands of travelers stranded, closing all three of the metropolitan area's airports and blocking most other means of transportation. Buses sputtered to a halt in snow drifts. Taxi drivers abandoned their cabs in the middle of New York's snow-clogged streets. At least one other subway train was stranded on the tracks.

"I just huddled with my girlfriend. We just tried to stay close. I was not dressed appropriately for the weather at all," Mullen said after the ordeal. "I didn't think I needed a heavy coat. I regretted my choice" to pack light.

Whenever cold air would hit his wet feet, he started to shiver, he said. "I was just concerned for staying warm. I was freezing."

Tensions in the car began to rise. No one was aggressive, but people were speaking forcefully to the conductor. Some demanded that city transit authorities bus them out. A mother with four children worried loudly that they had no water. Some worried about getting sick.

Men would walk onto the platforms connecting subway cars and urinate onto the tracks. Eventually, the train workers allowed passengers into the bathroom inside the train station. When it turned out that bathroom was heated, it caused a commotion.

"One woman came back and said, 'Oh my God, the bathroom is SO warm,'" Mullen said. She was very excited.

Twice, passengers called 911 and the Fire Department of New York responded. Passengers begged the emergency responders to take them away, but they were told they had to stay put, Mullen said.

At some point, it became morning. But the windows were too iced over to see the sun rise.

Finally, at around 9 a.m., the train began to move again.

Asked about the stranded passengers, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Jay Walder said, "We will of course take a look at that situation after the storm. I know it wasn't comfortable."

For Mullen, a 42-year-old art director for local cable news channel NY1, and his girlfriend, Melanie A. M. Hinds, it was another 3½ hours before they arrived at his apartment. With no trains running to his Park Slope, Brooklyn, stop, they took a different subway, then made a fruitless attempt to find a car service to take them home.

Finally, a generous couple drove them as close as they could get. It took them 20 minutes to drag their luggage and gear three blocks, through snow drifts that, at times, reached 3 feet high.

Once he crossed the threshold, the first thing Mullen did was change into something dry.

From the plane to his front door, their 14-mile odyssey had taken them 18 hours.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Northeast digs out of snow daze

  1. Closed captioning of: Northeast digs out of snow daze

    >>> the place. this one was the real thing. and there are piles of snow throughout new york city . for that matter, throughout the eastern seaboard . this is what an average new york city side street looks like. piles of snow this big and larger. cars buried. the problem is, this isn't an average new york city side street . we're standing in the middle of 49th street , just near the base of the world famous 30 rock christmas tree where millions of people come to see this site every year. this churning blizzard starting in the south, came up through new york city . again, the mid-atlantic, all the way through new england. and this was a whiteout here at this time yesterday. a history maker , no doubt. records fell along the length of the storm. 80 million americans were impacted by the storm, and look at that stat, 35 million americans witnessed blizzard conditions. transportation completely paralyzed. trains, planes and automobiles, all of it came to a complete halt. highways blocked to traffic. air travel , forget it. at the end of the day , when the storm is all said and done, it's estimated 6,000 total flight cancellations, domestic and international. my colleague, lester holt out in it all day and starting things off for us tonight in manhattan. lester, good evening.

    >> reporter: new york took the hardest hit from this, about 20 inches in the area i'm standing. up to 2 1/2 feet in other parts of the metropolitan area . keep in mind, all of this in the back of some pierce and howling winds. therefore, a city that usually prides itself on jumping back from these sorts of things rather quickly finds itself still struggling to recover tonight. the big apple woke up this morning frozen in time. the storm dropped up to three inches of snow an hour at times. too much for nows to keep up with. it even lit up the skies with lightning and sent claps of thunder booming over manhattan. it was a one-two punch that turned the storm into a blinding blizzard.

    >> a lot of snow, but have we seen winds like this before?

    >> it was the combination of the two. may believe you go back in history a hundred years or so, but it's been a long time since we've seen a some of 60 miles an hour winds and 20 inches of snow.

    >> reporter: states of emergency were declared in at least six states from the carolinas up through new england. snow totals range from 12.4 inches in philadelphia, to just over 19 inches in massachusetts. the new york area was hardest hit, with 29 inches on staten island , and 32 in nearby new jersey. normally bustling, new york streets were littered with abandoned cars, buses and emergency vehicles . tonight, the city's ems city is reportedly overwhelmed with a backlog of calls.

    >> not enough people listened to oured our admonition.

    >> reporter: passengers stranded for six hours sent photos and reports by cell phone to new york one television.

    >> it is very, very cold.

    >> reporter: the tomorrow barreled up out of the south yesterday and for a time it was virtually the only thing moving up the i-95 corridor. amtrak canceled new york -boston service. airlines canceled 1,400 flights in new york on sunday. all three new york airports remained closed well into this afternoon.

    >> we've been waiting for this trip all christmas break .

    >> reporter: in massachusetts, toppled power lines left tens of thousands without power and made it difficult for firefighters to save this burning house in brockton.

    >> it's a nightmare. that's the word.

    >> reporter: dangerous conditions in philadelphia, even forced postponement of last night's scheduled game between the eagles and minnesota.

    >> the reason this game has been postponed until tuesday is out of concern for public safety . travel in and around. that's the reason, not what we're seeing here.

    >> reporter: here in new york tonight, the head of the union that represents ems workers says because so many ambulances are stuck, response times are up to three hours for emergency calls here, brian, adding more urgency to clearing this city's 6,000 miles of streets.

    >> lester holt on this cold night a few blocks away from our location here in new york . lester, thanks.

Photos: The East Coast digs out

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  1. Snow covers the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport's Terminal 4 on Tuesday, Dec. 28, in New York City. Flights have slowly started to resume in New York but lines to rebook have been long. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. People sleep and eat on the floor while waiting for a flight at Terminal 4 of John F. Kennedy International Airport Tuesday. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A New Jersey Transit train arrives at the Princeton Junction station Tuesday in West Windsor, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A front-end loader removes snow in New York's Times Square on Tuesday ahead of New Year festivities. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A doorman shovels a path on the east side of Manhattan on Tuesday after the blizzard dropped 20 inches of snow in the area. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dave Duncan sits in his Honda Civic, buried on the street, in Asbury Park, N.J., on Tuesday. (Beth Defalco / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Travelers wait in ticketing lines at New York's LaGuardia airport on Tuesday. (Don Emmert / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Icicles melt in the afternoon sun as temperatures rise into the high 30s Tuesday in Hamilton, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. This traveler at Miami International Airport was among the many waiting Tuesday for flights after the Northeast blizzard caused backups across the country. (Jeffrey Boan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A young person sleds down a snow covered hill at Belmont Plateau in Philadelphia on Monday. A blizzard pummeled the Northeast on Monday, dumping up to 29 inches of snow, disrupting air and rail travel and challenging motorists with blowing snow and icy roads at the end of the busy Christmas weekend. New York City, eastern New Jersey and western Long Island were the hardest hit by the storm. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Travelers carry their luggage through a snow bank on 7th Ave. in front of Penn Station after a snow storm in New York, Dec. 27. A blizzard pummeled the Northeast on Monday, dumping up to 29 inches of snow, disrupting air and rail travel and challenging motorists with blowing snow and icy roads at the end of the busy Christmas weekend. New York City, eastern New Jersey and western Long Island were the hardest hit by the storm. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A windswept beach looks desolate following a snow storm on Monday in Westport, Conn. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Children play on a mound of snow on The Boardwalk, Dec. 27, in Atlantic City, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Gregg Smith shovels out after a heavy snowfall in the Boston suburb of Marlborough, Mass., Dec. 27. A powerful East Coast blizzard menaced would-be travelers by air, rail and highway Monday, leaving thousands without a way to get home after the holidays. (Bill Sikes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Alexa Canning and Talia Quinn fly through the air after hitting a jump on their sleds in Norfolk, Massachusetts. (Matt Campbell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A man shovels snow on a street along the Brooklyn waterfront, Dec. 27, in New York City. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Commuters, who were trapped over night, sit on parked trains at Penn Station in New York City on Monday. (Andrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A woman exercises in a snow covered pasture in Durham, N.C., Monday, after a powerful East Coast blizzard that moved through Christmas day. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A strong gust of wind blows snow in front of a man in Philadelphia, Monday. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A woman walks her dog between snowed-in taxicabs following a major blizzard in Manhattan's Greenwich Village on Monday in New York City. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Elena Amaral shovels steps at Trinity College during the storm in Hartford, Conn., Monday. (Jessica Hill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A homeowner clears snow from the end of his driveway, Dec. 27, in Norfolk, Mass., following the blizzard which brought more than a foot of snow in the Boston area. The storm dumped snow from Atlanta, Ga. to Maine. (Matt Campbell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Michael Howard of Albany, N.Y., shovels out his vehicle on Monday. (Mike Groll / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A woman walks through the snow in Manhattan's East Village in the early hours of Monday. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A New Jersey state trooper arrives to help after cars crash during heavy snowfall on Sunday near Columbus, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A worker clears snow from the seats at the Philadelphia Eagles stadium. (Tim Shaffer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The storm moved up from the south, where areas like Raleigh, N.C., saw snow over the weekend as well. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: Powerful winter storm bears down on North East coast

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