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California and the West

Blizzard Paralyzes Much of Colorado

Weather: Worst autumn storm in years strands travelers along roads and at airports. Governor declares state of emergency.

October 26, 1997|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — Just two days after the mayor said this city was prepared for anything El Nino could deliver, the first blizzard of the season blew in Saturday, paralyzing the region with heavy snow that shut down major interstates, stranded thousands of air and road travelers and prompted Colorado's governor to declare a state of emergency.

With more than two feet of snow piling up in downtown Denver and as much as four feet in neighboring foothill communities trapping people in their homes--some without power or heat--the National Guard was mobilized to help metropolitan police and fire departments cope with the worst autumn storm in recent memory.

"Right now is not a good time to be out. Enjoy the fireplace," Gov. Roy Romer advised residents.

More than 400 cars and trucks were stuck, some since midnight Friday, on Interstate 25, the major north-south artery through the Rocky Mountain region. Good Samaritans in four-wheel-drive vehicles delivered blankets, hot drinks, snacks and baby food to stranded travelers.

Crews were dispatched around the Denver area to swoop people out of the frigid 20-degree weather to hastily set-up shelters. Given that Denver Police Department cruisers were stuck in their parking lots, police officers took to the streets in their own four-wheel-drive vehicles to rescue hundreds of stranded motorists. Among the stalled vehicles were state Department of Transportation snowplows.

Many drivers simply abandoned their cars on the roads and set off on foot in search of motel accommodations or telephones.

"Well, here we be," grumbled Cary Ferguson, 38, as he shoveled snow out from under the tires of his small station wagon in a street a few miles south of downtown Denver. "We were headed around the block and we got stuck."

A few blocks away, Officer Walter Greene was helping clear freeway lanes and ramps of stranded cars and trucks that were holding up traffic in near white-out conditions. Among those he assisted was the driver of an 18-wheeler who pulled over to clean off a windshield, only to be buried in a drift created by a passing snowplow.

"I rescued at least 35 vehicles in just two hours," Greene said. "But heck, we were due a bad autumn storm. We haven't had one in at least 10 years."

Buses and other vehicles littered snow-packed Pena Boulevard, blocking snowplows and any other ground traffic from entering or leaving Denver International Airport. Air carriers, including United Airlines' hub operation, canceled flights.

On the airport grounds, some people were trapped in their cars for up to 11 hours, authorities said. And with the majority of flight operations canceled for most of the day, about 2,000 others were temporarily stranded inside the terminals and restaurants ran low on supplies.

Airport officials tried to meet the emergency by arranging to have airline meals brought in from canceled flights, and additional food and water was trucked in by the Red Cross.

Among the delayed flights was a charter scheduled to take the Denver Broncos football team to Buffalo, N.Y., to play the Bills today. The team was ferried to the airport on buses traveling behind snowplows that were making a special run to get the team on its way.

The Broncos flew out around 7:15 p.m. in the first plane to leave the airport since Friday night.

A football game in Fort Collins, north of Denver, between Colorado State University and Tulsa was put off until today.

The storm also caused scattered power outages in several Colorado communities, and utility officials said they couldn't begin work on restoring service until the wind died down.

Boulder had received about 28 inches of wet snow by noon. Nearby Coal Creek saw 47 inches of snowfall. Colorado Springs pulled its snowplows off the roads because the snow was falling too fast.

"About every five years we have a substantial whopper storm like this," said Linda Lonnecker of Coal Creek.

The storm's grip was felt across eastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, along with adjoining sections of Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. Snow fell as far south as the Texas Panhandle.

Up to a foot of snow on the Nebraska Panhandle forced the State Patrol to close a 107-mile stretch of I-80 from Big Springs to the Wyoming state line.

Hundreds of miles of highways were closed in the southeastern corner of Wyoming.

The blizzard, which rolled out of the northwest, was not related to the El Nino weather phenomenon.

"As much publicity as there has been about El Nino, it would be kind of silly not to be sensitive, given the interest of Colorado people in snow," Denver Mayor Wellington Webb had said Thursday under sunny skies. "It's expected to be handled, and we want people to know we're prepared to handle it."

Perhaps, but Officer Greene predicted that "there's going to be a lot of people buying four-wheel drives around here on Monday."

Times wire services contributed to this story.

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