Thank you Lambton County – I survived the Sarnia Snowstorm on Highway 402

by Joel Sandwith on December 17, 2010

This past week I had the amazing fortune to experience the warmth, caring and hospitality of the wonderful folks of Lambton County.

On Monday morning, as I do most weeks, I headed out from home (St Thomas) towards the Hoyes, Michalos office in Sarnia, on the 402.

As everyone is now aware, the 402 that morning was treacherous and unsafe, and I was stranded, along with several hundred others.  The story is a long one, but the short version is that the road transformed from good condition at London, to snowy at Strathroy, to white out conditions around the Forest/Hwy 21 exit.  By the time I realized I needed to get off the road I was too late, and forced to stop behind a 15 foot truck.    This was around 9am.  I didn’t move again for more than 24 hours.

Over the next 24 hours, I experienced the worst snow storm I have ever seen – much worse than the storm that had hit London/ St Thomas just the week earlier.  The wind blasted snow right to left over my car without stopping the entire day and all night.  I was able to exit my vehicle only a few times, for less than 3 minutes each time, and can tell you that I have never before felt cold as deeply as I did that day.  By about 3pm, it was clear we were not leaving our vehicles that day – in fact I do not recall any emergency vehicles going by at all, until darkness had already fallen.  It was 4pm before I realized that what I thought was a bush about 60 feet in front of me off to the side was actually a car in the ditch.  There was a transport in the ditch behind me 60 feet as well, but I would not see past those distances all day.

I had a full tank of gas and was able to keep the car running all night.  I had to open the window and door every 30 minutes to cut down the snow drift that was burying my car, in the event someone came by to get me out.  I had very little food with me, but frankly no appetite to eat anyway.  I kept the radio on, but aside from being updated as to the rapidly dropping temperature, didn’t learn much.  I wrote a few notes to my wife Melanie, and to my sons Brock and Luke, telling them of my ‘adventure’.

As the night grew dark, the first of our saviours arrived – local snowmobilers, who were stopping at each vehicle to ensure we were safe, warm and had fuel.  They stopped by about 3 times, in my recollection.

In the morning, these snowmobilers stopped by again, and offered to take me (and everyone else) to a rescue centre.  I had no hat, and was not appropriately dressed, but knew I had to leave my car.  The ride was only about 7 minutes, but when I arrived my eyes were frozen shut, and my ears and head were caked with 1 inch of solid ice.

The truck stop I was taken to first had housed people for over 36 hours by that time – and the employees of the Esso and Subway were still working, making sandwiches and coffee for everyone.  There must have been close to 100 people in by then, and more each minute through the door.  The truck stop was completely snowed under – no one could get out, and the parking lot was full of stranded cars and trucks.  One family had been there since 6pm Sunday night.

After about 7 hours there, a bus load of us were transported to the Wyoming Fairgrounds, a community centre which is set up for disaster relief.  There were about 150 people there, mostly transport truck drivers.  The kind local folks in that town volunteered to keep us fed, and warm.  There were army style cots brought in, and we all tried to get a little sleep.  Late in the evening, we were told that the 402 was still not passable, and that we might be stuck for a third or even fourth day.

Wednesday turned out to be a clear day, weather wise.  By noon, we were told to quickly get on a bus, and about 56 of us were driven back out the 402 to try and find our vehicles.  The carnage was extensive; it appeared that there had been possibly dozens of trucks and cars towed in the 5 km or so between Oil Heritage line and the Hwy 21 exit.  Also, there were two large transports still tangled together,  in the road ahead of us, as well as another jackknifed transport being extricated just as we arrived.

My car, a 2005 Honda Civic, was right where I left it.  It had been mostly ploughed out, and with a little shovelling I was able to get it clear of the 4 feet of snow that had covered it.  It started on first crank, and still had half a tank of gas, even after having been run for more than 24 hours in -25 c weather.  The line of trucks and cars still on the road was at least 2 kilometres long.

I arrived home, safe and sound, late Wednesday afternoon.  I was tired, and by the sounds of it, not in the best looking shape.  I have a little frostbite on my ears, but I am healing quickly.

I’d like to say hello to Ziggy and Christian, truckers from Woodstock and Toronto, who I spent a lot of time with on Tuesday and Wednesday.  I’d like to say hello and thank Paul and Jerry, both of whom work at Lambton College, who let me use their cell phones to update my loved ones.  I know all of you are home safe now too.

I’d like to thank the county of Lambton and especially the folks of the town of Wyoming, for their efforts in keeping us safe and fed.

I’d like to thank the employees at Subway and Esso, for hanging in, when others might have clocked out.

I’d like to thank my family, friends and co-workers at Hoyes,  Michalos for the support they gave my wife and kids through all of this – I can’t tell you how much I appreciate knowing how much you all care for them, and for me.  And yes, I will pack some emergency supplies in my car from now on, and I will get a cell phone as well.

Finally, a very special thank you to the snowmobiler who saved my life.  I don’t know your name, you didn’t need to be there, you had no reason to save me, but you did anyway.  I owe you my life, thank you.  I will make sure that my children, and their children, know what you did for me that day.  I would have thanked you in person, but you were off saving someone else by the time I could speak.

I’ll be back in Sarnia next week, I hear it’s supposed to be sunny.

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