Image: Aerial of abandoned cars in Chicago
Ed Bachrach  /  AP
Some of the hundreds of vehicles abandoned on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive are seen Wednesday. staff and news service reports
updated 2/2/2011 4:56:35 PM ET 2011-02-02T21:56:35

Lindsey Wilson was on Lake Shore Drive, but she couldn't tell where. It was dark, and the snow swirling around the stranded bus made it impossible to see anything but the closest cars.

There was talk among her fellow commuters of 25-foot waves washing up from Lake Michigan and about when the bus might get going, but nobody knew anything — not the driver, not the emergency operators passengers were calling, and not the shivering motorists climbing aboard to keep warm after firefighters pulled them from their cars.

When a group of passengers decided enough was enough and started to walk, she joined them.

"I got 100 feet, everything was an orange hue, there was snow in my face, I couldn't see anything, I turned around and couldn't see the bus and I thought I was going to die," she said Wednesday morning.

Wilson was among hundreds of people in at least 1,500 vehicles who found themselves trapped on Chicago's most famous stretch of road for as long as 12 hours Tuesday night and Wednesday morning during one of the worst snow storms in the city's history.

The situation was among the worst impacts from the winter storm that carved a frigid path along a 2,100-mile stretch across the eastern U.S.

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Accidents involving a Chicago Transit Authority bus and other cars stopped traffic on the drive's northbound lanes by early Tuesday evening.

In the morning light, the roadway looked like rush hour had been stopped in time.

"It was like, insane," one of the motorists, commuter Frank Ercole, told WLS-TV, early Wednesday. "No one knows anything. Everything's frozen."

Three lanes of cars cluttered the road with snow reaching as high as the windshields. Some cars were almost completely buried. Bulldozers worked to clear the snow from around the cars, then tow trucks plucked them out of snow drifts one by one.

The stranded vehicles were the worst breakdown in Chicago's handling of the storm.

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Some motorists came away angry, frustrated and puzzled at why the city didn't close the crucial thoroughfare earlier, or why officials didn't anticipate that a bus accident could clog it up like a cork in a bottle.

"In 31 years with the city, I haven't experienced anything like we did at Lake Shore Drive," said Raymond Orozco, Daley's chief of staff.

Orozco said more than 130 firefighters, some on snowmobiles, and 100 police officers were sent to the road. As they sat and waited, the stranded motorists gratefully gobbled down granola bars and drank coffee and Gatorade, brought to them by Good Samaritans who climbed fences and railings to deliver them.

For hour after hour, the passengers in Wilson's bus waited. As lightning crackled, and wind gusts of up to 70 mph whipped up the snow and buried vehicles before their eyes, they huddled in their cars and on buses.

With word spreading that one or more buses had jackknifed ahead of them and sealed the drive, they tried to make a break for it. Fearing that they would be swallowed by the snowdrifts that by morning had climbed to the tops of vehicles, some turned around.

"I thought if I fall over, what would happen if I got buried under a pile of snow?" said Wilson, who made it back to her bus as much by feel as sight.

Image: Snow piles up inside truck
Kiichiro Sato  /  AP
Snow accumulates Wednesday in a pickup truck that was stranded and left open on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

With so little information out there, motorists said the mood slipped from jovial to apprehensive and even to panic.

"The bus driver kept yelling, 'We are all gonna die'," said Ron Nelson, a 51-year-old salesman who was on a bus bound for a northern neighborhood where he lives. It wasn't clear if the driver was joking and "nobody thought it was funny," Nelson said at a hospital, where he was taken.

In cars, after watching their gas gauges falling, drivers tried desperately to keep their vehicles idling long enough with heaters on full blast to warm them up before turning off the ignition to keep from running out of gas.

People called family and friends on cell phones, as much to get information and ask to be rescued as relay what was going on — mostly because nobody knew.

Carolyn Pirotte, a 28-year-old nurse, just waited in her car and talked to her husband on the cell phone. He caught a ride as far as he could get, then started walking. He peered into windows until he spotted her just before midnight, six hours after her ordeal began.

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He climbed in and waited with her for three hours until firefighters took them to a warming center at a nearby hospital.

As for Wilson, she wonders why she hopped on that bus just before it rolled onto Lake Shore Drive.

"I should have been smart enough not to take that route," she said.

Jenny Theroux said she was stranded from 4 p.m. Tuesday until about 4 a.m. Wednesday. Stuck just 800 feet from an exit, she repeatedly called the city for information.

"It was a very stressful experience toward the end, especially not knowing what's going on," Theroux said, after abandoning her car. "I'm just very confused as to why it all transpired this way."

Story: Blizzard cuts power as deep freeze hits Midwest

The city said that all vehicles towed from the drive were taken to lots at no charge to owners, who were told to call the city's information line for details.

Jeannie Mulcahy said she called the number and didn't get much help, according to NBC Chicago .

"I spoke with a woman who basically told me she could give me no information about the location where my car was towed," Mulcahy said. "I said, 'So I pretty much have to just wander around, looking for my car until I find it?', and she said, 'That is correct.'"

Mulcahy said she left her car at around 3:45 a.m. and would not try to recover it Wednesday.

"I'm going to leave it," she said. "Last night was an ordeal that I don't want to relive."

Dozens of other motorists were out looking for their cars, NBC Chicago said, many without much luck.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Deep freeze, snow across U.S.

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  1. Irving, Texas

    This sculpture was iced over Thursday, Feb. 3, in Irving, Texas. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Miami, Oklahoma

    A pickup truck that plunged off this snow-covered bridge near Miami, Okla, on Thursday sits in the Spring River. Three people were killed and five others injured. (Gary Crow / Tulsa World via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Chicago

    The Chicago skyline is reflected on a thin layer of ice as a chunk of snow-covered ice floats in Monroe Harbor on Thursday. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Chicago

    Robert Brigs shovels snow on Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago on Thursday. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Iowa City, Iowa

    A car sits abandoned in the median of I-380 between Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Iowa City on Thursday. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Commuters brave subzero wind chills as they return to work Thursday in Chicago. This week's blizzard dumped more than 20 inches of snow on the city. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Racine County, Wisconsin

    A man walks behind high snowdrift in Racine County, Wis., on Wednesday. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Auburn, Mass.

    Officials walk past a building that collapsed in Auburn, Mass., on Wednesday, Feb. 2, after days of heavy snow followed by rain. (Paul Kapteyn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Elizabethtown, Pa.

    A fallen tree weighed down with ice sits on Old Hershey Road in Elizabethtown, Pa., on Wednesday. (Blaine Shahan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Milwaukee, Wis.

    This walkway to Lake Michigan was frozen over Wednesday in Milwaukee, Wis. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Chicago

    A commuter climbs over a snow bank to catch a bus Wednesday in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Chicago, Ill.

    Hundreds of cars are seen stranded Wednesday on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. (Kiichiro Sato / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Chicago, Ill.

    Snow piles up on the driver's seat of a stranded Chicago Transit bus on Wednesday after the door was left open during the overnight blizzard. The bus was abandoned on Lake Shore Drive. (Kiichiro Sato / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Akron, N.Y

    Andrea Todd shovels snow from her driveway with her dog Myles in Akron, N.Y., on Wednesday. (David Duprey / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Milwaukee, Wis.

    A wave sends large chunks of ice into the break wall at the Milwaukee Marina in Wisconsin on Wednesday. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Iowa City, Iowa

    Downtown Iowa City, area near the University of Iowa, is a virtual ghost town on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Windsor, Conn.

    People stop along Interstate 91 in Windsor, Conn., to help push a car out of a snow bank on Wednesday. (Jessica Hill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Chicago

    Blizzard winds swirl the snow on an elevated train platform in Chicago early Wednesday. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Buffalo, N.Y.

    Frost forms on a window in Buffalo, N.Y., on Wednesday. (David Duprey / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Salem, N.H.

    This car landed vertically into a snowbank after a multiple vehicle accident on Interstate 93 on Tuesday north of Salem, N.H. No one was injured. (Tim Jean / The Eagle-Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. New York City

    The Wednesday morning commute in New York City's lower Manhattan was an icy one. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Westfield, N.J.

    An officer blocks the road to prevent pedestrians and traffic from approaching a fallen tree branch and power lines in Westfield, N.J., on Wednesday. (John Makely / Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Milwaukee, Wis.

    A cyclist tries to ride during the blizzard in Milwaukee, Wis., on Wednesday. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Barre, Vt.

    A dog named Muldoon waits for its owner, who stopped for coffee on Wednesday in Barre, Vt. (Toby Talbot / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Chicago

    Men help push a car that got stuck in a snow on the Lake Shore Drive in Chicago early Wednesday. (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Milwaukee, Wis.

    Students from Marquette University in Milwaukee to go to the Union Building in blinding snow as a blizzard warning hits southeast Wisconsin on Tuesday. Marquette canceled classes for Wednesday. (Rick Wood / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Chicago

    Cross country skiers navigate through snow downtown Chicago on Tuesday. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Chicago

    Rush hour traffic crawls as blowing snow batters Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on Tuesday. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Columbia, Mo.

    A snow-and-ice covered Chris Gubbels pauses while walking his dog Tuesday in Columbia. Mo. (L.G. Patterson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Chicago, Ill.

    Snow falls on the Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as "the bean," in Millennium Park downtown Chicago on Monday. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. View from above

    This satellite image provided by NOAA shows the winter storm covering much of the U.S. on Tuesday. (NOAA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Fayetteville, Ark.

    A snow plow clears College Ave. in Fayetteville, Ark., on Tuesday as heavy snow falls. (April L. Brown / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Chicago, Ill.

    An approaching blizzard doesn't stop this fisherman Tuesday on Lake Michigan in Chicago. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Boonville, Mo.

    Trucks disappear into the white snow as they travel along I-70 on Tuesday near Boonville, Mo. (L.G. Patterson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Rogers, Ark.

    Postal carrier Tip Burnett uses a rubber hammer to open a frozen mailbox at the National Guard armory in Rogers, Ark., during heavy snow on Tuesday. (Flip Putthoff / Northwest Arkansas Newspapers vi) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Brooklyn, N.Y.

    Morning commuters in New York City make their way over a snow covered Williamsburg bridge on Tuesday. (Mary Altaffer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Port Washington, Wisc

    Icicles form on a walkway along Lake Michigan in Port Washington, Wisc., on Tuesday. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Carmel, Ind

    A Bobcat is used to clear a parking lot of two-inch-thick ice in Carmel, Ind., on Tuesday. (Michael Conroy / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Lancaster, Pa.

    Icy patches made crossing the sidewalk in Lancaster, Pa., a challenge on Tuesday. (Richard Hertzler / Lancaster Newspapers, Inc. via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Owasso, Okla

    Ila Dooley digs her car out to try and get to work on Tuesday in Owasso, Okla. Both of Oklahoma's major airports had to shut down due to the snow. (Mike Simons / Tulsa World via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. St. Louis, Mo

    Snow plows work to remove ice from Interstate 55 on Tuesday in St. Louis, Mo. A blizzard warning was in effect for the St. Louis area, as was a forecast for up to 20 inches of snow. (Tom Gannam / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Albany, N.Y.

    Snow was also falling Tuesday in downtown Albany, N.Y. Most of upstate New York was under a winter storm warning and Gov. Andrew Cuomo opened the State Emergency Operations Center due to a forecast of up to 2 feet of snow in some areas. (Mike Groll / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Denver, Co.

    A woman braces against the cold and blowing snow as she crosses the street in the financial district of downtown Denver on Monday. School officials canceled schools in Denver for Tuesday. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Pembroke, Mass.

    Scott Buchanan scrapes snow off the roof of his house in Pembroke, Mass., on Monday as his yellow Lab Charlie holds a snow covered ball in his mouth waiting to play catch. (Stephan Savoia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Lexington, Ky.

    Lexington, Ky., police and firefighters work at the scene of an accident after freezing rain moved coated roads there on Monday. A section of Georgetown Road was closed after two separate accidents involving five vehicles. Freezing rain turned the bridge into a sheet of ice. (Charles Bertram / The Lexington Herald-Leader via) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Chicago drivers abandon vehicles on busy thoroughfare

  1. Closed captioning of: Chicago drivers abandon vehicles on busy thoroughfare

    >>> right now, power lines , one of the largest storms in the nation's history is, lives up to predictions. hundreds of thousands of people are without power and in texas, there are rolling blackouts . in chicago , drivers abandoned their vehicles right on the street. air travel will not be normal for days. this is our seventh winter storm this season. in december, winter's wrath struck three times. the first led to the collapse of the metrodome in minneapolis. then ten feet of snow rocked the sierras mid month. a third storm over the christmas holiday weekend paralyzed much of the northeast. and in january, the frost spread to the south where cities like atlanta were covered in sheets of ice. by mid month, new england was rocked by several feet of snow. few cities is worse than hartford, connecticut, where an unimaginable 50 plus inches fell and the snow picked. up again, i don't have to tell you, last week. and in chicago , the national weather service is calling this the third worst storm in that city's history. over 19 inches of snow have fallen there so far. as you can see the windy city is living up to its name. 50-mile-per-hour wind gusts literally blowing over pedestrians. and sending them crashing to the ground. the weather channel 's jim cantore joins me live from chicago . i lived in chicago for ten years. i've never seen the city like this.

    >> tamron, i got to be honest with you, i didn't know at one point whether i was in a tropical storm or i was actually in a blizzard. i mean, because it was that strong with the winds. 40 to 70 miles an hour. that is the main reason why we had the power outages. this snowstorm has pretty much. you the this one in the top three. the mag mile looks fantastic. the sun's coming out now helping the salt, if you will on the roads. believe me, this is a main thoroughfare. they're going to clear it here and they're going to keep it clear. there are still interstates closed across much of northern illinois where people were stranded in their cars. there is going to be known as the lakeshore drive storm. last night at rush hour, it's like deja vu for me because i was in d.c. last weekend. here it is happening again in chicago last evening with the jacknifes bus, boom, boom, boom, boomsa, cars stack up. had to be rescued from cars. we had firemen went in snowmobiles helping to rescue people from their cars. the good news is, it's lakeshore drive . you can just kind of -- if it's that bad, get out of your car and walk back to one of the hotels or the lobbies of the buildings for cover. it's not like it's out in the middle of nowhere on the gw parkway .

    >> it's not an easy feat. hang on. there's this incredible picture. this is lakeshore drive . this lakeshore drive runs along chicago right at lake michigan . in fact, i used to live right off of lakeshore drive . yes, you can walk to hotels but there's a median and mounds of snow and vehicles between you and what might be safety, which would actually be to the left of your screen. there are a number of hotels and a couple of restaurants there. in the meantime, jim, what can chicago expect next in that region? well, comments got 55,000 without power right now. the main reason is the wind, not the weight of the snow. this is a very light snow for the most part. because of the wind it didn't really stick to trees or power lines . the wind caused a lot of damage. people can expect cold. now that the sun's out, maximum radiational cooling, we're going to be in the single digits.for those that are stranded on the roads, it's going to be a cold afternoon and certainly a very recold night. we expect most people, entirely in northern illinois that are vanded to be picked up and dealt with today, obviously. people going back to get their cars have to go to certain lots here on lakeshore drive . back to you.

Map: Storm wreaks havoc


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