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Chronicles of a family stranded 19 hours on I-15

Oregon family won't soon forget - the night they were stranded

By Jennifer Moody
For the Albany Gazette-Times

ALBANY — Ronda Da Rosa couldn't believe it. She'd checked the road reports that morning, before they'd left San Francisco for the trip home to Albany. No doubt about it, though — those were snowflakes falling, and they still had about 275 miles to go.

She hit the turn signal and pulled over at the Klamath River rest stop on U.S. Interstate 5. Jeremy, 19, and Amanda, 17, stayed in the back of the family's 1999 Ford Expedition. She snapped a digital picture of the snowflakes while her husband, Jeff Da Rosa, who had more winter driving experience, slid behind the wheel.

It was Dec. 28. The Da Rosas had no way of knowing that they and about 300 other people were about to put their trips on a 19-hour hold.

Jeff drove for another 40 miles as the asphalt grew steadily whiter. At 5:30 p.m., the Expedition crossed the Oregon border. Half a mile down the road, traffic simply stopped.

The Da Rosas waited. The snowflakes fell. The cars ahead didn't move.

About 45 minutes later, Jeff switched off the ignition. Ronda shot more photos out the window, holding her camera out as far as she could and scanning the digital images to see how far traffic stretched. She couldn't see an end.

They turned on the radio and called the road report for the Oregon Department of Transportation, then Caltrans, California's transportation agency. Snow flurries in the pass, they heard. Two-hour delay.

That's about nine o'clock, Jeff thought. We'll be moving by then.

The Da Rosas had planned on dinner closer to home; Medford, maybe. They figured they could wait, or if they couldn't, they had travel snacks and a cooler holding two dozen foil-wrapped chili verde burritos from their favorite Mexican restaurant in King City.

The family was in King City, 50 miles south of Monterey, in 1989 when a 7.0 earthquake struck near San Francisco. Ronda never traveled without water and other essentials after that. And Amanda was carrying a roadside emergency kit she'd just received for Christmas.

While they waited, the four broke out a travel Scrabble game. Island reggae from Bob Marley and Toots Hibbert drifted from the CD player, in warm contrast to the thick layer of snow accumulating on the car's windshield.

They snacked on jerky, trail mix, and leftover Christmas candy. Jeff turned on the car every hour and a half to let the heater warm the interior.

At 9:30, they called the highway reports. The delay had been changed to midnight.

People were leaving their cars to wander down the interstate, chatting, straining to see. Rumors flew. One man said he'd heard there was an accident. Another said it was a jackknifed semi.

In the Expedition, Ronda dug out blankets, pillows and heavier clothes as the temperature continued to drop. Jeremy used the car flashlight to read an autobiography by outdoor humor writer Pat McManus, "How I Got This Way." Amanda, who had learned a few days earlier to knit, brought out a scarf she'd started.

By 10:15, the road report said delays would be 24 hours "to indefinite." What are we going to do here? Jeff thought, glancing at the gas gauge, which read half full. Do we have enough fuel?

The Da Rosas prayed aloud, asking for protection and help for everyone to make it out safely. They dozed, not quite able to lie down.

By dawn, the snow had stopped falling. It was up to the running board of the Expedition, 19 inches off the ground. Some of the smaller cars ahead were nearly buried.

Ronda snapped a photo of an emergency vehicle that pulled up in the southbound lane about 7:30. The couple in the car ahead had a baby with a fever, she learned later, and the people in the car next to them had called emergency services on their cell phone before passing over some medicine they'd brought along.

The medicine had worked, so the emergency workers left. No, they told Jeff, they didn't have any road information.

In the next couple of hours, drivers began to emerge. Jeremy took the work gloves from Amanda's emergency kit and hiked to the front of the line, about half a mile away, to help with the digging. Jeff and Ronda handed out jerky and broke into the burritos, heating them on the engine of the Expedition.

In passing, a man said he'd heard more snow was coming. Are we going to get out of here? Ronda wondered. What are the other people going to do?

About 10 a.m., Ronda saw a man on cross-country skis heading north. "Hey," she called, "do you know if there's a bathroom around?"

"Well, I did make it to the top, and there was a Porta-Potty," the skier replied.

Ronda and Amanda found the portable restroom a few hundred yards back from the Exit 1 off ramp. An Oregon Department of Transportation worker was there, talking to an Oregon State Trooper who had just pulled up in his Expedition. Another trooper was helping dig out cars.

From them, the Da Rosas heard that ODOT and Caltrans hadn't communicated to shut the interstate down in time, stranding hundreds of people in the Siskiyou Summit.

A spontaneous cleanup crew had formed, which Jeff and Jeremy joined. One man turned a picture frame he'd received for Christmas into a makeshift shovel. Another used a kayak oar to scoop away snow from his rig. Still others dug with snowboards.

By 12:30, the cleanup crew had reached the Da Rosas' Expedition. Amanda had finished her scarf, knitting 50 inches in all. "Time to go," a trooper told Jeff. "You're holding up traffic."

The family climbed back in the Expedition and crunched down the frozen interstate to the exit, then headed back south. On the way, they passed a single snowmobile, which Jeremy said had been carrying gas for some of the stranded. They never saw another one.

Yreka was impossible; a tangled mass of double-parked motor homes outside sold-out hotels. So the Da Rosas took Highway 96 to the coast, a four-hour trip with just a dusting of snow; spent the night in Eureka and took U.S. Highway 101 home the next day.

Three weeks later, they still think about the little details: the siphon hose a stranded driver had asked for that they had forgotten to pack, and the fact that the only gloves in the Expedition were the thin work gloves in Amanda's emergency kit.

They think about the other drivers they met, the ones without water, the ones with no chains or old ones meant for different-sized tires. The man who told them he'd heard on his CB radio that a 72-year-old Florence man several cars ahead had died of a heart attack.

They also think about the way everyone pulled together on that frozen stretch of pavement: the women who shared fudge and applesauce in exchange for burritos, and the way their own children pitched in.

"It was good family time," Ronda said. "It really was."