Stuck on a six-lane parking lot for 12 hours, Margaret Radford couldn’t even force her driver’s door open against howling winds at points on Wednesday.
Radford was one of hundreds of people stranded on Woodmen Road after a crash blocked traffic just as a blizzard packing 100 mph winds roared in. A former Colorado Springs city councilwoman and utilities employee used to disasters, Radford was taken by surprise.
“I have never seen a storm go from non-existent to blinding white in moments,” she said. “It did that.”
From Monument Hill to the Eastern Plains, police, firefighters and the Colorado National Guard were still at work Thursday rescuing drivers caught in the storm and clearing abandoned cars left frozen to highways.
An El Paso County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said scores of people were still stuck a full 24 hours after the storm slammed the Pikes Peak region.
“Last I heard we still had about 150 people out there,” Jacqueline Kirby said.
Radford, like so many others Wednesday, thought she could beat the storm, leaving her Falcon home for a quick couple of hours at her downtown office. Balmy temperatures and raindrops gave a false sense of security, she admitted.
“I want it highly noted that I made a stupid mistake,” she said.
She got an early start and was headed home on Woodmen by 9:30 a.m. With a four-wheel-drive Subaru, snacks, water and a half-tank of fuel, the drive to the northeastern suburb would be easy, even if traffic was crawling, Radford thought.
“Then it was all brake lights,” she said.
It was just before 10 a.m., when the first big wind gusts were measured at 51 mph at Colorado Springs Airport. Raindrops turned to big flakes, then to sand-like crystals. Radford was just east of Marksheffel when she was caught in the back-up behind a crash.
In just a few minutes, her view went from taillights to pure white.
“I couldn’t see anything,” she said.
Forecasters called the storm a “bomb cyclone” — a winter storm with a hurricane twist. Barometric pressure dropped 50 points in the Pikes Peak region as the storm passed. It hit its lowest, 976 mb, right as Radford saw brake lights.
Sheriff’s Office Lt. Bill Huffor said his deputies spent more than day warning drivers about the storm. But no matter how many tweets, radio broadcasts and Facebook posts the agency puts out, a singular truth remains.
“Anytime you have a natural weather emergency, it tends to catch people off guard no matter how much warning we give,” Huffor said.
The National Weather Service put El Paso County under a blizzard warning a full day before the weather hit, but this storm was especially deceptive. Wednesday morning dawned with temperatures hanging near 50 degrees in Colorado Springs with a light rain that made the Pikes Peak region feel more like Seattle.
Most days see the temperatures rise with the sun; Wednesday saw the mercury plunge, hitting freezing on Woodmen Road just as Radford came to a stop. With gridlocked traffic on her left and right, she was trapped.
“There was nowhere to go,” she said. “I couldn’t get off.”
She called her husband Bill, a Gazette copy editor who decided to ride out the storm at home.
Bill wrote an email to his colleagues downtown, describing the ferocity of the storm.
“Visibility is pretty much nonexistent on my property south of Falcon,” he said. “I assume our barn is still there, but can’t see it.”
A few miles away from home, Margaret Radford couldn’t see more than a few feet and could barely hear the guy in the minivan in the next lane when they rolled their windows down for a few shouted snippets amid the howling wind.
She was dressed for the weather, with a hat, gloves and heavy coat. She ran her car enough to keep warm, but rationed her gasoline for the long wait. Her emergency gear seemed plentiful before the weather closed in.
But after a few hours of waiting, she worried.
“Not enough,” she said. “You never have enough.”
The sun was down before there were hopeful signs. The snow was relenting.
“Around dusk, I started to see some activity of rescue vehicles,” she said.
Radford watched rescuers help those who were worse off, including a family with a baby wrapped in what appeared to be a thin blanket.
“There were a lot of people who really needed help,” she said.
As it got darker and colder, Radford regretted a forgotten decision that put her emergency kit in the back of her iced-over station wagon.
There was no easy way to get to the flashlight and other gear through the drifts and ice that surrounded the Subaru.
Help arrived as emergency workers cleared cars from Woodmen. Traffic started moving and Radford joined in after freeing her car from drifts that piled up around it. But her journey came to a quick halt.
“As soon as I was on my way, I went right into the ditch,” she said. “The road, the median and the ditch were impossible to distinguish.”
It got worse as she waited in her now-stuck car. The gas tank ran dry. Then the battery died.
She used the last few minutes of power on her cellphone to flag down passing drivers using its flashlight accessory.
After 12 hours in the storm, her salvation arrived in a pickup truck.
An airman from Peterson Air Force Base had hit the road to help his neighbors and found Radford. She only caught his first name, Mike.
Radford piled into the Good Samaritan’s truck and waited as he stopped to help others stuck on Woodmen. He eventually dropped her off with two more Good Samaritans, utilities workers Mike Myers and Keith Riley.
They had spent the day helping rescue stranded drivers and picked up Radford as they ended her shift.
Radford said she’s humbled by her co-workers who spent the day fixing downed wires and helping those caught by the storm, like Myers and Riley.
“It brings me to tears when I think about the men and women who keep our lights on and keep our water running,” she said.
And Radford said she’ll never underestimate Colorado’s wild weather again.
“It went from virtually nothing to Armageddon in about 10 minutes and 10 miles,” she said. “I have never seen this happen.”
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