December 11, 2013

Editor stranded in ice storm experiences truest form of humanity

James Bright
The Express-Star


The last week brought horrors in the form of winter weather to Oklahoma and Texas. Snow and ice covered more than 300 miles of land and left many stranded in terrifying situations, and I was one such person. 

A foolish drive left me alone with my car stuck on a steep hill of a back road, covered in ice with temperatures falling into the low 20s. But as is the case with any horror story, heroes emerged to aid the helpless.

I began driving from Oklahoma City at 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 7. My goal was to reach Rockwall, Texas, before dark. I make this roughly 225-mile drive on a regular basis as my family lives there. On average, it takes about 3 hours 15 minutes to complete, but this time it took more than eight times that.

Oklahoma was easy enough. Interstate 35 was drivable and traffic was free-flowing from Ardmore into Texas. I crossed the Red River thinking this trip would be no different from any other when I noticed the great state divider was frozen solid.

This seemed like an ominous warning, but I continued forward. I was no more than five miles into the Lone Star State when the roads turned to pure ice. What has been deemed cobblestone ice forced traffic to a crawl and bounced cars all over the highway. Every passing mile was accompanied by a holocaust of vehicles, abandoned by their drivers.

Texas Highway Patrol shutdown IH-35 about 30 miles into the state. I was forced to find an alternate route, which led me to Highway 82 that travels east-to-west along the Red River counties of Texas.

I made it a mile past Whitesboro when I was forced to turn around. A jackknifed semi-truck blocked a bridge half of a mile up the road making it impassable.

Exhausted and hungry, I drove to a Whitesboro gas station. An attendant told me an even smaller road, Highway 56, would take me to IH-75. I bought some food and continued my quest. I figured the conditions would be no worse than what I’d already experienced.

I made it five miles when I approached a hill. I had just made my way up a similar slope, so assumed I would be fine. I hit it at 25 mph, sliding and turning into various skids the whole way. The ditches on both sides looked more than 20 feet deep. As I approached the top of the hill my car stopped and began to slip backward. Slowly, I started approaching one of the drop offs and my automobile didn’t respond to any of my commands.

Out of options, I applied the emergency brake and put the car in park. Nothing but a blast of frigid wind greeted me when I stepped outside. I called the police, but they said they couldn’t get to me tonight. Nothing in my life has scared me more than hearing “we can’t get to you,” from the police. I called several tow services, all of which did not have vehicles that could make it up the slope that stopped me. Fear filled my head.

I tried one more service, Happy Dave’s Wrecker Service. Owner Dave Blaylock answered the phone and lived up to the name of his company. He told me with a jovial sound in his voice, “I’ll be there in 20 minutes.” True to his word, Blaylock arrived, hopped out of his truck and attached a cable to my car while cracking jokes. Naturally I thought, of course you’re happy. You’re the only game in town. You can charge whatever you want. Blaylock towed my car to the top of the hill and helped park the vehicle in a small lot. He looked at me, smiled and said that’ll be $25.

I was stunned. He could have charged whatever he wanted and he asked for a rate I considered to be way under market value. Then he offered to take me to a local community center where volunteers set up a shelter for those stranded by the storm. I happily accepted.

During the trip we encountered a bevy of people stuck in the ice on the treacherous highway. Blaylock asked me if I minded him helping them out. Of course I didn’t, but this man’s kindness is exemplified in his asking. It took only a few minutes for Blaylock to hop out of the car and pull people out of danger. It was amazingly quick. It seemed unlikely that he received any money for his work from these people.

We eventually reached the Whitesboro Community Center and I paid Blaylock, He gave me his card and told me to call him if I needed anything. He said he was going to look for a young family with a six-month-old child that he heard was stranded, and took off into the night.

I walked into the shelter and was greeted with smiles. Volunteers asked me my name, took me to a cot and offered me soup, which I graciously accepted. Cots are just as uncomfortable as they look. They’re hard with little give. But when your nerves are shot, and you’ve reached a state pure exhaustion they become pillow-top mattresses.

There were about 30 people who took refuge at the shelter. All had the same bewildered and exhausted look about their face despite age. We were all connected by an incredible experience.

I fell asleep waking only once when a volunteer placed a Red Cross blanket over my body. Apparently, I had been shivering.

The morning greeted me with the scent of breakfast. Some of the same volunteers that were helping people late that night before were still there, serving us biscuits, gravy, sausage, eggs and coffee. It was certainly not what I imagined when I thought about shelter food.

I set out on foot around 10:30 a.m. to find a phone charger. During my venture I crossed the paths of three men from The First Baptist Church of Whitesboro. Among them was Head Pastor Mike Flanagan. He told me they were heading to the community shelter to grab some cots and move the refugees to the church, joining us with a larger camp.

I hopped on a bus with the men determined to help them in any way I could. In trying times, common conversation is an invaluable gift. I’m an alumnus of a Texas A&M system school, so our conversation quickly turned to college bowl games. For a few moments, I forgot that I didn’t know how or when I was going to get home.

We moved the cots and took the people to the church. I saw Flanagan joking with some of the stranded just like he had with me. He spoke Spanish to those who didn’t speak English. He happily embraced everyone, a true embodiment of Christian values.

I left the church shortly after to continue my quest for a cell phone charger. One of the men I met with Flanagan, Chris Clark, was driving to the same place to acquire soap and shampoos for the refugees and offered me a ride. During the trip, I told him about my car and how it was on top of a hill on Highway 56. His response matched what I had come to expect from this amazing group of people. He said he would try to tackle the hill and get me to my car.

He was successful, and upon arriving at my vehicle, Clark helped me push it out of the ice-covered parking lot and led me back to the shelter, never getting farther than 15 yards away from me.

Lunch was being served when I returned. This time the meal consisted of turkey casserole, green beans, sweet potatoes, fruit, pork loins and pie. It was a feast. It was more than I ever expected.

After lunch I spoke with two highway patrol men who told me Highway 56 was icy, but passable. I thanked them and my new friends at the shelter. I set out at 3 p.m. and managed to make it over the hills on Highway 56. Trucks had blasted and salted the streets shortly before I reached IH-75, which made the rest of the journey simple.

Later that night, Flanagan called me to make sure I arrived safely. His level of caring knew no bounds.

I am in no way a religious man. I like to say I’m a deist that masquerades as an agnostic. But Flanagan, Clark, Blaylock and the other volunteers I met during this grand adventure showed me what it means to care for your brothers. They showed me the beauty of truly practicing what you preach. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience an event like this again, but should I ever start to lose faith in humanity I have a group of people I was lucky enough to meet that will quickly restore it.