Snow angels

by James Menzies

SARNIA, Ont. – A major winter snowstorm hammered southwestern Ontario in mid-December, stranding more than 300 motorists overnight in frigid, blustery conditions and leaving one truck driver dead.

Many professional drivers who were stuck in the storm opened their doors to other motorists, sharing the warmth and amenities of their truck cabs and living up to their reputations as Knights of the Road.

David Virgin, a 40-year driving veteran with D&J Transportation was running empty to Sarnia when he got caught in the storm near Exit 57 on Hwy. 402. Virgin, who often runs northern B.C., is no stranger to snow, but he said conditions deteriorated rapidly as visibility was reduced.

“We were three or four wide on a two-lane highway, going the same way,” he recalled. “Nobody could see nothing. It was bad.”

Soon, traffic came to a dead stop and the waiting began. As the day dragged on, it became clear traffic wouldn’t be moving any time soon. That’s when Virgin heard a knock at the door. It was a young couple with a baby, who were travelling by car and were quickly running low on gas.

“I told them to shut the car off and to get in here,” Virgin said. The grateful young couple thanked him for his offer and said they’d try to stick it out in their car for the time being. But at around 8 p.m. when the prospect of a night in their vehicle had sunk in, they returned to his truck and took him up on his earlier offer. Virgin offered the young family his bunk, closed the curtains and slept in the front seat.

“That’s all I could do,” he said. “I think anybody would’ve done the same thing.”

The wind rocked the truck all night long, Virgin recalled, but when the sun came up and the skies cleared, houses became visible not far from the highway.

“It was so windy (the day before), you couldn’t see. We thought we were in the country,” Virgin said.

While stranded motorists waited for the roads to be re-opened, nearby residents invited them in for coffee and a warm breakfast. That’s when Virgin parted ways with the young family, but he got a phone call from the woman’s mother later in the day to thank him for his hospitality.

“They were very grateful,” he said. “Her mother called me the next day and thanked me, so that was very nice.”

Bill Justice was also driving west along Hwy. 402 at Exit 34 on Monday, Dec. 13 when “everything came to a complete halt.”
About an hour later, an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer came by on a snowmobile and told him the roads were closed and that they couldn’t keep up with all the accident calls.

A driver for Cintas, the uniform company, came by and said he was running low on gas and asked if he could join Justice in his cab to warm up. Justice had about 140 gallons of fuel on-board as well as an APU that burns just one litre an hour, so he was in no danger of running out of fuel. Justice invited the driver in and was happy to have the company.

Asked how they passed the time, Justice said “Just shooting the breeze, making sure the people around us were okay. We had some seniors in front of us, but as long as they were moving around we knew they were alright.”

The next morning, the daylight revealed snow drifts three to four feet deep all around the vehicles. Soon a helicopter landed near the truck to rescue some women and children.

While Virgin didn’t see any emergency response officials during his ordeal, police and fire crews were able to make it to the vehicles around Justice’s truck with much-needed sandwiches and bottles of water.

With the women and children evacuated, Justice sat tight until school buses were able to reach the scene via the eastbound lanes, which had finally been plowed. Justice was taken to a warming centre in nearby Wyoming, Ont. where he joined another 190 or so drivers who’d also been stranded overnight.

Not one to sit around, Justice soon found himself volunteering to make food runs to the local grocery store and helping others. Justice spent Tuesday night at the Legion and was finally allowed to return to his truck Wednesday morning.

“I’ve seen worse snowstorms,” he told Truck News. “The problem was there were so many accidents, the OPP couldn’t keep up with all of them, so they closed down all the roads. It was blowing pretty good though. The stuff that was already on the ground was blowing good and you couldn’t see very far.”

But despite the unplanned two-day delay, Justice wasn’t upset.

“It was interesting,” he said. “I met some good people. There’s nothing you can do. We don’t rule Mother Nature, so you just have to take what comes.”

As truck drivers were helping out their snowed-in brethren, the goodwill went both ways.

A truck driver with the YouTube profile Giljagsir posted a stunning video that showed just how bad the blowing snow was. He posted the video from his truck and wrote: “In snowstorm since Monday Dec. 13, 2010 (almost 30 hours). Still there. We are so thankful for the corner home owner who took all truck drivers to their own home and gave everyone breakfast.” In another comment, he wrote that a local homeowner invited about 14 truck drivers in for breakfast.

You can find the video, which has been viewed more than 326,000 times, by doing a YouTube search for Giljagsir.

But while most of the professional drivers caught in the blizzard passed the time by shooting videos, helping others, meeting new friends and just making the best of the experience, the storm did prove deadly.

According to local media reports, Damion Pietrzyk, 52 years of age and also a truck driver, died when he left his rig after a day with little food and water, slipped on the ice and hit his head.

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