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Air Travel Snarled Across U.S. by 2nd Major Storm

December 29, 1987|BOB SECTER and TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writers

CHICAGO — The fading year served up another slush ball Monday, pelting the nation's midsection with the second major storm in as many weeks and stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers trying to head home from holiday trips.

Frustrated passengers stacked up in airline terminals across the nation as the storm delivered a one-two punch to the two key mid-continental transfer points for commercial traffic--Denver's Stapleton and Chicago's O'Hare airports.

Flights began to trickle out of Stapleton again after 14 inches of snow clogged and closed its runways for virtually all of Sunday, but then O'Hare traffic was severely curtailed Monday as the same storm dumped eight inches of snow and cut visibility at times to near zero.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic seaboard braced for its turn today as the storm rolled eastward. Dan McCarthy, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Severe Storm Center in Kansas City, said snow advisories and winter storm warnings had been issued along the coast from Massachusetts to Virginia. New York City residents could wake up to as much as six inches of snow, he warned.

Despite the miserable weather, more than 1,000 Chicagoans kept an all-night vigil outside the city's Soldiers Field to be first in line when tickets went on sale Monday morning for a Chicago Bears' National Football League playoff game.

To many commuters, getting to work in the morning rush hour may have seemed harder than trying to slip past the Bears' vaunted defensive line. Freezing rain turned roadways into skating rinks, sending hundreds of cars sliding into ditches, utility poles and other cars, while ice downed power lines and froze rail lines and switches, stalling some commuter trains for hours.

In the western Plains, road crews were still trying to dig out from Sunday's surprise blizzard, which dumped up to 34 inches of snow on parts of the Colorado foothills. Snowdrifts blocked more than 100 miles of Interstate 25 in eastern Wyoming, while 10 to 20 inches of snow blanketed an area from northern Nebraska across Iowa and into Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Power Cut to Thousands

To the south, ice storms chilled a path from Abilene, Tex., to Oklahoma City and into southwestern Missouri, where power was cut to thousands of customers. Power outages were reported in many other areas, as well.

On a brighter note, waters from a Christmas weekend flood that killed eight people in Arkansas and Tennessee began to recede, allowing 1,250 residents who fled parts of hard-hit West Memphis, Ark., to begin returning to their homes. The Mississippi River town was still reeling from a mid-December killer tornado when 14 inches of rain began to fall on Christmas Eve.

Authorities linked at least 35 deaths in several states to havoc caused by the slow moving storm system. Many of the deaths were in traffic accidents.

The blustery weather also took some of the steam out of the presidential primary campaign. Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas was forced to cancel a campaign appearance in Chicago on Monday, while Democrat Gary Hart, unable to fly out of his Denver area base, scrubbed a trip to Iowa.

The storm socked the Denver and Chicago airports as they were clogged with the annual rush of post-Christmas travelers. Though O'Hare was open on Sunday, many passengers had trouble leaving because Denver connections were canceled. Then the storm hit Chicago, forcing United and American, the two major carriers, to scratch most of their flights Monday morning and afternoon.

Many Face 3-Day Delays

Because many flights were already booked to capacity with holiday travelers before the storm, many passengers found themselves facing two- to three-day delays in rescheduling flights. O'Hare alone had been expecting to handle more than 200,000 passengers Monday.

The situation was much the same in Denver, where virtually no commercial traffic ran on Sunday and only about 900 of the 1,500 flights normally scheduled were expected to operate on Monday as snow removal crews still struggled to dig out buried runways.

Travel was so precarious in Denver that many businesses and the courts remained closed Monday.

Norm Avery, an airport spokesman at Stapleton, predicted the facility would not get back to normal until sometime today. And for those flights that were able to get off, Avery said, delays were averaging one to three hours. However, many passengers complained that the waits were much longer.

Steve Kingsbury, 23, a Navy machinist, had been trapped at Stapleton since 9:30 Sunday morning with his 23-year-old fiancee, Diane Lovejoy. The pair, who had been sleeping on the vinyl chairs and couches in the airport's military lounge, said they could not get a flight to their home base of Jacksonville, Fla., until this morning.

'Can't Cash a Check'

"We ran out of money and the Red Cross has been helping us out with food vouchers," said Kingsbury. "I can't cash a check."

By midday Monday, crowds jammed most of the 2 million square feet of terminal space and had begun to tax not only the patience of exhausted airport workers but also the physical plant of the airport itself. Security workers were forced to hand-frisk passengers as many metal detectors broke down. A typical line at the Continental Airlines ticket counter was 119 deep.

And then there came the diaper shortage. In addition to providing food and blankets, the Red Cross began passing out diapers to desperate mothers, some of whom resorted to rinsing out baby clothes in ladies rooms and trying to dry them under hand dryers.

Bob Secter reported from Chicago and Tamara Jones from Denver.

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