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Stuck in Denver airport, they can't sleep in heavenly peace

Only 3 of 6 runways open by afternoon. As new travelers arrive, the lines just get longer.

December 23, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — They told Michelle Sadesky on Friday that she could leave, but she was skeptical. It was the third day she'd been assured she was about to escape snowbound Denver International Airport.

"Every day we sleep on the marble floor until 4 in the morning," said Sadesky, a 34-year-old West Los Angeles resident trapped during a Wednesday plane change en route to New York. "Then they put us on standby and say we can get out of here -- but then they say the airport's closing. I don't even know if I have any words for it."

On Friday, Sadesky had another standby ticket, but she and thousands of other stranded travelers couldn't imagine how they would get out of the logistical nightmare that was Denver International.

The sun was shining on the high Plains, and the airport officially reopened at noon after being closed for two days by a blizzard that dumped 2 feet of snow on its runways. But routes remained backed up across the country and from Europe.

Denver International's video monitors listed flight after flight as delayed or canceled. The airport was swamped with stranded passengers who had turned it into a virtual refugee camp -- and with thousands of others who joined them now that the roads were finally clear.

Travelers jammed the terminal, forming lines that twisted through the concourse. The wait to even talk to a ticket agent ran several hours. Bewildered passengers lugged their baggage past musicians who, in an effort to brighten the mood, played Christmas tunes on accordions and guitars.

"I haven't even found the end of the line," said Marsha Atherton, 39, who came to the airport Friday morning with her sister after being holed up in a Denver hotel for two days. Their original return flight to Michigan was canceled Wednesday.

Adding to the problem was that only two of the airport's six runways were open by midday; a third had opened by late afternoon. United Airlines, the airport's major carrier, flew one-third of its usual 900 flights. Struggling to get on those and other fully booked departures were thousands of passengers whose flights were canceled Wednesday and Thursday.

Tensions ran high as the weary campers who had spent nights in the airport faced off with would-be travelers just walking through the door. When some newcomers tried to cut into a line of folks sleeping in front of the ticket counters, shouting matches ensued. Police had to intervene.

Some people were fed up with waiting.

Tonia Stubbs, 43, got stuck in Denver while flying from Sacramento to Chicago on Wednesday. By Friday she had given up on seeing her family for Christmas and decided to return to California. But Frontier Airlines couldn't give her a confirmed flight until Monday.

So she was rounding up people to join her on a drive to Sacramento if her standby ticket fell through. "I've been booked on three flights. They've all been canceled," Stubbs said. "This has been the same line for three days straight. I plan on either flying or driving home by Christmas."

Next to her, Sherri Wallace had a tighter deadline. She had already missed her aunt's funeral in Akron, Ohio, and was just hoping to fly standby back to her home in San Diego before today -- her birthday. "I don't know what I'll do," she said. "I want to go home."

Some travelers had decisions to make, but their judgment was clouded by sleepless nights.

Jolie Long, a 43-year-old dance professor from Georgia, had landed in Denver on Wednesday while traveling to see her mother near El Paso. She had been rebooked on a flight today but was wondering whether to stay at the airport and try to get on an earlier standby departure, or find a hotel in town.

Long had bonded with fellow stranded travelers. In a cluster of seats by a row of telephone booths, they had made a miniature Christmas tree out of pages of 19-year-old Phil Scofield's Guitar World magazine and decorated it with dangling gummy worms. Long had torn out some pictures of the Nutcracker from a copy of Dance magazine and hung them on the booth.

"The whole thing is so iffy. Do you stay here because you're happy camping here?" Long said, sitting on a Red Cross-provided cot. "But I really want to shower."

Scofield, a college student returning home to Sheridan, Wyo., had his decision made for him. He would stay at the airport until he was rebooked. "I'm broke," he said, pulling out his iPod earphones. Driving home was out of the question. "This whole sleep-deprived thing ... not a good idea."

Even locals were trapped. The main roads to Denver were plowed, but Donna Eisele, 68, wasn't returning to her home in Aurora. After arriving at the airport Wednesday morning for a flight to see her daughter in Seattle, she was now on standby -- and she wasn't budging.

"You can't go anywhere -- you have to be here," Eisele said. She had a Saturday morning flight confirmed, but "who's going to bring me back at 4 in the morning?" she added.

Eisele leaned back in her chair, watched the tangle of glassy-eyed passengers and contemplated another 24 hours here.

"This," she said, "is enough to drive you to drink."

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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