DENVER — Winter's first sneak attack dealt Denver a crippling blow Sunday as a storm expected to bring only flurries deposited up to 30 inches of snow in the suburbs and stranded thousands of holiday travelers with the closure of Stapleton International Airport and several major highways.
The American Red Cross sent food, blankets and sympathetic volunteers to the airport after its first weather-related shutdown in four years paralyzed about 1,000 flights and forced 5,000 to 10,000 people to camp in the terminal.
The disaster agency also dispatched volunteers with four-wheel-drive vehicles to ferry doctors and nurses to hospitals, and emergency shelters for stranded motorists were being set up as night fell.
The worst storm in years rendered Denver "basically inaccessible," said Lind Brinkhoff, Colorado State Patrol communications officer. She said major interstate highways leading east to the Kansas border, south to Colorado Springs and west from Fort Collins to Wyoming were closed throughout the day and most of the evening. More than 1,000 motorists were reported stuck in the area of Limon.
The snow caused a 30-car pileup on Interstate 70 north of the airport but police said the only injuries were minor.
Larry Dunn, National Weather Service forecaster, said winds hit 40 m.p.h. in east Denver, while temperatures in the metropolitan area dipped to a low of 14 degrees with wind-chill factors well below zero.
The storm, an unexpected spinoff from a system pushing across the plains from New Mexico toward Nebraska, turned downtown Denver into a winter wonderland with 12 to 18 inches of snow. Up to six more inches of snow was expected overnight. By Sunday afternoon, the town of Golden was already digging out from 29 inches.
"There's 30 inches of new snow in the southwestern suburbs," Dunn said.
Flooding Eases in South
The blizzard-like conditions hit just as the nation's other major storm problem, flooding from heavy rains in Arkansas and Tennessee, was beginning to abate. That storm was blamed for at least six deaths and the evacuation of 3,000 people. More than 1,200 people remained homeless Sunday in West Memphis, Ark.
In Denver, Richard Boulware, deputy director of aviation at Stapleton, monitored the situation at the world's sixth-busiest airport by radio.
"I can't get out of my driveway," he explained.
Boulware blamed wind and extremely poor visibility, not the drifting snow, for the airport shutdown.
"We have 70 pieces of snow-fighting equipment out there," he said, "but all the snowplows in the world can't plow visibility."
Boulware said that as of 8 p.m. Denver time the airport had reopened one runway and "the choice is up to the airlines" on whether to fly in or out. But as of late evening only air freight and a commercial charter had used that runway. "We expect to be fully operational shortly after dawn," Boulware said. He said about 2,000 travelers remained stranded at the airport.
He said that if not for the weather, about 95,000 people would have passed through the airport Sunday. "I think a lot of people just took one look outside this morning, said, 'Yech,' and didn't bother even trying to go to the airport," Boulware noted.
Carl Pabst wished he had been one of them.
"I was supposed to be at work at 2 p.m.," lamented the 25-year-old Northridge, Calif., record-store employee who was left stranded at the airport when his morning flight to Los Angeles was scrubbed.
"All the hotels in the area are booked and my family can't get out here to pick me up," said Pabst, who had planned to leave Denver a few days ahead of his vacationing family. "So I'm stuck. I'm just going to find a nice warm corner to sleep in."
The storm even took its toll on Ma Bell, which was so besieged with requests for phone numbers of the airport, tow trucks and other services that its information line ran a special recording apologizing for "abnormal conditions" and offered not to charge customers the 25-cent toll if they would just hang up.
But the deep freeze wasn't enough to daunt a few thousand die-hard Denver Broncos fans who shivered in the snowy stands of Mile High Stadium to watch the hometown team literally freeze out the San Diego Chargers, with a 24-0 victory.
Many of them emerged from the football game to find their cars hopelessly bogged down in snow. Stadium officials set up coffee and doughnut stands to help them wait out their transportation woes.