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updated 12/28/2010 12:18:20 PM ET 2010-12-28T17:18:20

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.

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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 (60 centimeters) of snow on the Northeast.

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.

Slideshow: The East Coast digs out (on this page)

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.

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All aboard!
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 a halt at an open-air station platform in a forlorn corner of Queens near the airport and Jamaica Bay. Later, NYC Transit spokesman Charles Seaton said the cause was 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, Mullen said. But the minutes stretched into hours.

Video: Blizzard-stranded family ‘desperate’ for rescue (on this page)

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 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.

Regretful decision
"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."

Interactive: Top travel stories of 2010 (on this page)

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.

Begging, pleading
Twice, passengers called emergency operators 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.

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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."

14 miles, 18 hours
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 (a meter) 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 (22.5-kilometer) odyssey had taken them 18 hours.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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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  1. Image: US East Coast Begins To Dig Out After Large Blizzard
    Chris Hondros / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (27) The East Coast digs out
  2. Dave Granlund / Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (11) Cold Winter

Video: Blizzard-stranded family ‘desperate’ for rescue

  1. Closed captioning of: Blizzard-stranded family ‘desperate’ for rescue

    >> now to one of the more dramatic stories tied to the storm and thankfully this one has a happy ending, a naval seaman was driving to his mother's house with his wife and 3-month-old son, they were stranded for eight hours until someone came to the record. we're talking about andrew lauda, along with his wife kristen and their son christopher. good morning to all three of you. let's go back in time and talk about what happened. it was sunday morning, 7:30 a.m ., in norfolk, virginia, you're saying i'm going to go see my mom, she lives in queens, you're on the phone, everything is fine until what?

    >> we were driving and the snow started to hit harder in virginia. then we got to maryland and it seemed to be slowing down and once we hit new jersey, it kind of got really bad. but we were too far into the trip to actually turn around. but it seemed like we could make it. and as the hours kept going by for the trip, it turned what would be a six, seven hour trip to a 19-hour trip just driving.

    >> but eight hours of that, you're actually stuck, you're actually not moving. you call 911 and what happens?

    >> they were neither responding because of all the snow that was on the ground. in fact the precinct we were near, their calls were down because of the snow.

    >> kristen , what are you thinking at this point? you've got a 3-month-old baby in your arms?

    >> i was just thinking we have got to get him somewhere out of the cold weather . at this point we were just desperate to get anybody and everybody to just come. even if they just get the baby and get him someplace warm.

    >> exactly. and here's the rub. you're home on leave because you have been serving and you come home and this is actually the first time you have actually met your son. he was just born three months ago. so what was it like for you dealing with this as a new father and knowing that your family was in jeopardy?

    >> i just kind of wanted to keep my head level because i needed to make sure that she -- that my wife would not flip, i wanted to make sure he didn't get scared for what was happening. i was trying to keep a level head so that he wouldn't be upset about it.

    >> you're trying to stay calm, which is where your naval training came n so your aunt called a local tv station, they told your story. and this guy named carlos calderon hears about it and he comes out.

    >> he actually drove out in the storm. he came to where he were actually trapped and he actually came up there. he came to get us. and he brought me, my wife and my son to my mother's house and then he actually took another trip back with me to go get our puppy that was in the car and go get whatever else we needed from the car and drove me back to the house.

    >> he says he's not a hero, his name is carlos calderon. there was something good that came out of this. what was it?

    >> the one upside to it was after a six-month deployment, i was able to spend a lot of time with my family and not able to go anywhere else. so that was the positive side of it.

    >> andrew and kristen , thank you so much. and good luck with that baby, christopher. thank

Timeline: Top travel stories of 2010

From a volcano that disrupted air travel across Europe to Steve Slater's infamous exit on a JetBlue emergency chute, here's a look at the top travel stories of the year.

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