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Digging Out on the Morning After : Commuters: Residents retrieve abandoned cars and check out of crowded motels. Some used unusual means to reach home during the storm.

January 09, 1992|CAROL WATSON and GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Valerie Bates wasn't going to let a closed road keep her from picking up her 4-year-old daughter from a day-care center in Palmdale. She took a plane home.

Bates, 32, a computer consultant, was working in Sylmar when she learned, as did thousands of others Tuesday, that snow had closed all routes to the Antelope Valley.

"I panicked," Bates said Wednesday. "I called the school and spoke to my daughter. She was upset. The people at the school said they would take care of her, but all I could think of was getting to her."

She did--by hopping a flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Palmdale.

It was an unusual route home, but it worked just the same on a frustrating, long and ultimately memorable night when a snowstorm paralyzed most of northern Los Angeles County. Some stranded commuters worried about their children, others their cars. Still others fought over motel rooms and bickered over telephone lines.

And on the morning after, scores went to retrieve cars that had been towed off roads and the freeway--only to learn that they had to pay $65, and sometimes more, to get their vehicles out of hock.

"I'm grateful they towed the car into Palmdale," said Tom Bakkila, 31, whose 1974 Chrysler New Yorker slowly died on the Antelope Valley Freeway, losing headlights, radio and windshield wipers before the alternator gave out. But he added, "I don't think they should be capitalizing on someone's misfortunes."

Others checked out of motels that they had flooded seeking shelter. "What's really disgusting is when you get up the next morning and you know you have to put the same clothes on," said Palmdale resident Judi Summers, 52, as she checked out of a Canyon Country hotel Wednesday morning. "I have to have clean underwear."

Sorting out the storm damage Wednesday, the California Highway Patrol said that although a multitude of accidents occurred on freeways and mountain roads, few--outside of one death--involved serious injuries. The death involved a Reseda man who crashed into a snowplow while possibly driving drunk.

Both the Grapevine stretch of the Golden State Freeway and the Antelope Valley Freeway in Agua Dulce were reopened about midnight. Both had been closed shortly after 4 p.m.

The CHP said it was the first time in three years that both critical north county freeway routes were closed at the same time. The added closures of alternate routes, such as Sierra Highway and Bouquet Canyon Road, created a nightmarish traffic snarl.

It brought out the best and worst in commuters.

At the Country Inn in Canyon Country, would-be guests crammed the small lobby, eager to make their way to the front counter and guarantee a place for the night at the 50-room motel. Tempers rose.

"At one point, the lobby was all filled up with people and they were standing and yelling," manager Dawn Fischer said. "They literally were saying, 'Get out of my way or I won't get a room.' "

Indeed, in 45 minutes it was time to put up the no vacancy sign, Fischer said.

Frustration mounted again, she added, when the patrons settled into their rooms and tried to phone home. The motel's phone lines became overloaded, preventing guests from calling out and angering several.

At the nearby Canyon High School gymnasium, the mood was relatively jocular among those at a shelter set up by the American Red Cross. Most of the more than 200 commuters gathered there joked about their trip and exchanged travel war stories. One even asked for a basketball to practice a little shooting.

Machinist Hugh McNair of Lancaster sat quietly with his 8-year-old son, H.R., waiting out the storm. "We were driving on the freeway for about five hours when we heard about the shelter on the radio," he said. "We just decided to give it up and come here."

"This is not fun," H.R. added.

But some people thought it was great fun.

At least that was the reaction of Jim and Ana Bice's 13-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. The Bices, who stayed at the Country Inn, called home to tell their children that they could go to a neighbor's house if they were scared to be alone.

"They said 'no,' " Ana Bice said. "They had the time of their lives. They ordered pizza."

Eric Muhl, 42, of Canyon Country was heading home from his Palmdale job when the storm caught him and forced him to pull over to the side of the road. He crossed the highway and caught a ride from a passing motorist to Palmdale, where he eagerly called home to report that he was safe.

"I called home to my wife, who didn't care about me, just what happened to the car," Muhl said of the red Acura he had bought two months ago. He found it safe and sound at a Palmdale tow yard Wednesday. The trauma of the experience, however, remained.

"I feel guilty about it, like I abandoned a child or something," Muhl said.

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