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Stranded motorist anxious for bridge reopening

One long night ... Woman who got stuck in snowdrift says bridge repairs can't come too soon

By Sandy Miller
Times-News (Twin Falls)

BLISS – Having heard stories about people freezing to death in the snow, she knew better than to leave her car and go for help.

LuAnne Hormel spent a frightening 24 hours stuck in 3-foot snowdrifts on Deer Gulch Road in Elmore County on her way home to Bliss Thursday night. It was the first time her faithful little Subaru had met a challenge it couldn't master.

"My car was completely engulfed in snow, and I wasn't going anywhere," Hormel said Wednesday. "There was a howling wind. I knew how far I was from anyone and how cold it was outside, and I knew those two didn't go together. I had the good sense to stay put."

Luckily, she said, there was enough gas in her car to keep her warm during the bitter cold night when temperatures dipped down to 20-below with the wind chill. She melted snow in a Tupperware dish for water and was glad she had grabbed a bag of salad out of the fridge before leaving Boise.

"Here I am, stuck in the middle of nowhere, and I have this delectable salad," she said.

Hormel and her husband, Christopher, live along the south side of the Snake River outside Bliss next door to her mother, Merry Finch. Hormel was on her way home from Boise State University, where she's studying for her master's degree in social work, when she got stuck about 15 miles away from home.

Normally, she never would have headed home that way. But since the Twin Falls and Gooding highway districts closed the Bliss Bridge four months ago after the Idaho Transportation Department deemed it unsafe, Hormel didn't have much choice.

Though the bridge's closure has been a major disruption from the start for people who live south of the river, the deep snow and soggy conditions of recent weeks have made those folks even more isolated because of bad conditions on the alternative roads.

Help is on the way, however. On Wednesday, the boards of the Twin Falls and Bliss highway districts voted to award a $216,349 contract, plus about $20,000 in engineer fees, to DBM Contractors of Federal Way, Wash., to repair the bridge.

The Idaho Local Technical Assistance Council which deals with funding for cities, counties and highway districts will put in $100,000 toward the project. The Twin Falls Highway District is contributing $45,000, and the Bliss Highway District is putting in $5,000. The districts are looking to the Twin Falls County and Gooding County disaster programs and the state of Idaho to fund the remaining $86,349 of the project cost.

The bridge was closed in November after two underwater inspections determined its foundation was unstable. The good news is that engineers say the bridge can be repaired without replacing it -- something that would have cost much more and taken much longer to do.

The target date to complete the project is May 15, Twin Falls Highway District Director Burgess said.

The repairs can't come too soon for Hormel and the others suffering from the disruption -- especially after her ordeal in the snow.

Late Thursday evening, Hormel's mother began to worry that she hadn't returned home. When Friday rolled around, she and her neighbor, Joe Leonard, started calling hospitals to see if Hormel had been involved in an accident.

By Friday afternoon, Leonard launched his own one-man search party. He didn't have much gas in his 1988 Dodge pickup, so he borrowed Merry's car.

"I came around the corner on Bell Rapids Road and saw something that didn't look right," Leonard said. "I got out of the car and thought, 'It's got to be Luanne.' At that point, I got really panicked. She could have frozen or tried to get out of the car and walked out."

In a hurry to get to his neighbor, Leonard stepped hard on the gas and got stuck himself. He got out and started walking toward Hormel's car. He was relieved to find his neighbor, though cold, hungry and tired, was otherwise all right.

"That's all that mattered," he said.

Armed with a cell phone, Leonard called Burgess, who called Elmore County. Meanwhile, two men in a four-wheel-drive truck came by and tried to pull Merry's car out of the snow. They also got stuck. So they called someone with a bigger truck, who managed to pull their truck out, as well as Merry's car. Two more AAA tow trucks and an Elmore County snowplow later, Hormel's little Subaru was finally back in business.

Leonard has been something of a lifeline for his neighbors this winter, his 16-year-old Dodge four-wheel-drive pickup the only vehicle in the neighborhood that can safely navigate the slick canyon roads with their steep grades and long, sheer drops. He regularly drives his wife, Sheila, and his neighbors to one side of the Bliss Bridge so they can walk to their cars parked on the other side. He comes back later to pick them up.

But if the roads get much worse, they all might be marooned.

"I may be rowing my bride across the river," Leonard said.

Hormel said she's pleased to see the bridge is one step closer to being repaired. Meanwhile, she's buying a cell phone.