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updated: 2/3/2011 1:28 PM

Ingenuity, patience saves lives across suburbs

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  • An abandoned car in the southbound lanes of Kirk Road in Geneva. The blizzard of 2011 left a number of cars stranded along Kirk Road between Tyler Avenue and Route 38.

       An abandoned car in the southbound lanes of Kirk Road in Geneva. The blizzard of 2011 left a number of cars stranded along Kirk Road between Tyler Avenue and Route 38.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • A car stuck in the snow is left in the middle of a street in Elgin Wednesday morning.

       A car stuck in the snow is left in the middle of a street in Elgin Wednesday morning.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
By Kerry Lester

There were times, Round Lake Fire Lt. Dave White said, when he could barely see his hand in front of his face.

So the going was especially slow as he and five battalion members searched stranded cars for people who needed help. They used snowmobiles outfitted with sleds to get the drivers from the roadside to nearby medical treatment centers, two at a time.

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"We got a lot of calls from diabetics, people stressing out, being trapped in their cars," White said. "Some we got to, others it took hours."

In all, the department used six snowmobiles from 7 p.m. Tuesday to 4 a.m. Wednesday to rescue more than 70 people in Round Lake and Grayslake.

Ingenuity and patience were in high demand Tuesday and Wednesday as the record-breaking storm barreled through the Midwest, bringing about 20 inches of snow to suburbs from Antioch to Wheaton. Rescues occurred across the region as emergency crews figured out how to help stranded drivers and people in medical distress, no matter what it took.

"Ambulances don't have four-wheel drive," White said, noting that fire department vehicles from both villages got stuck at times in the heavy snow that was falling at rates of over inches an hour.

The contingency plan to use snowmobiles, hatched by the department several days before the storm hit, proved crucial as snowfall became heavier and heavier, White said.

Firefighters were able to reach a Grayslake man who was having serious breathing complications, nearly a half-hour before the ambulance that had been called arrived.

It meant a ride on a snowmobile for the rescued, though.

"A lot of people weren't dressed for the weather," White said, "but we told them either stay in your car with no heat, or take the 5- to 10-minute ride."

Five firefighters brought their own snowmobiles, and another was given to the department on loan from Nielsen's Enterprises in Lake Villa.

Becky Schultz was on her way home to McHenry around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday when she got stuck in a long line of stranded cars on Route 60 near Mundelein. A physical therapist at Advocate Condell Medical Center, Schultz spent the next seven hours in her Jeep, trapped with countless other motorists as snow piled up around them.

"I'm a woman of faith, so I spent the most time praying," Schultz said. "I figured someone would come and rescue us."

She was right. About 11:30 p.m., two Round Lake firefighters appeared on a snowmobile and started shuttling people to safety.

One of the firefighters used Schultz's Jeep to take the woman and a few other motorists to the nearby Fremont Township headquarters. Schultz admitted she isn't a great driver and let one of the firefighters drive, once the Jeep was filled with people.

"I'm very messy, so we had to throw all this (stuff) in the back," she said.

In Bloomingdale, Fire Lt. Jeff Janus said snowplow drivers and firefighters worked together at 2 a.m. to dig their way to the home of a woman who reported labor pains.

An ambulance got stuck in the snow a few homes away, Janus said, and snowplow drivers cleared a path up her driveway, as firefighters then shoveled a route from her front door to the ambulance.

"We've never had (conditions) like this," Janus said. "Most of the guys weren't even little kids during the Blizzard of 1979."

Two snowplow drivers also served as heroes in Lombard.

"One plow operator assisted the Glen Ellyn Fire Department on an ambulance call to Good Samaritan (hospital)," said Carl Goldsmith, Lombard's director of public works. Because of his efforts, Goldsmith said, the man who needed help is still alive.

Another driver helped take a woman in labor to the hospital.

Don't ask Craig Wartinbee what would have happened if the White Riders Snowmobile Club hadn't come to his rescue. He refuses to let his mind go there.

Wartinbee, a physical education teacher for special education students within Elgin Area School District U-46, was trapped for 12 hours in a ditch on Route 72 between French and Walker roads in Hampshire.

Until the weather breaks, he and about a dozen others are staying at First United Methodist Church in Hampshire, which has become a warming shelter.

Part of Wartinbee's job requires him to travel to multiple district schools daily, so at 5:40 p.m. on Tuesday, he was leaving Sycamore Trails Elementary School in Bartlett. It was nearly two hours before he got stuck in Hampshire.

Wartinbee would have left school sooner, but the weather prevented a grandmother from picking up her grandchild on time. So he stayed until she got there.

The Genoa resident had slowed his Hyundai Elantra down to 30 mph on the road because visibility was zero.

All of a sudden, everything stopped.

And then, he said, he was "sitting there where all you see is snow and it's white out front. We had nowhere to go because we couldn't move."

As the snow piled up, Wartinbee spent the next 12 hours sipping a soda, turning his car on at times to stay warm and talking to his wife, Judy, on the phone.

The snowmobile arrived at around 8 a.m.; snowmobilers spent hours searching for stranded motorists.

The drivers took Wartinbee and 15 others to a gas station, the only business in town that was open, to warm up.

Later, the snowmobilers escorted the stranded drivers to the church, where they sipped on coffee, ate crackers and soup from the food pantry, recharged their cell phones batteries, talked about their experiences and slept wherever they could find room.

"The church is there with open minds and open hearts and when the need arises, we do what we can to help," said the Rev. Gavin Brandt, the church's pastor. He said several parishioners have offered to fix dinner for the 12 stranded motorists still at the church.

Meanwhile, Wartinbee is thankful to the driver; he thinks his name is Dan, but he isn't sure.

"Would I be alive? I don't know," Wartinbee said. "Without those snowmobilers, who knows."

Hampshire resident Jennifer Boznos, too, was stuck in a car -- for nearly 19 hours on Route 47 with her four dogs just 5 miles from her home.

She said she sat in her car, running the engine intermittently on and off through the night, to keep her and her the dogs warm.

A dog trainer, she was taking her dogs from Chicago to her house, with plans to hunker down for the night and avoid the blizzard.

"A group of snowmobiles came by last night and tried to rescue me and some other people here," Boznos said. "But I couldn't leave my dogs alone in the car overnight. They'd freeze to death."

She said she left her car only for moments at a time, once to walk the dogs, then other times to clear snow off her tailpipe to make sure the car didn't fill up with carbon monoxide. Boznos, reached late Wednesday evening, said she was pulled from her vehicle 19 hours after stopping, noting another driver in another stranded car had saved her life and those of her dogs by walking to a local gas station for help.

The woman's husband walked down Route 47 with food and supplies, and her brother arrived with a truck, to drive Boznos home.

"Oh my god," Boznos said. "Good Samaritans. I would say so. ... I would have died in there. I would have run out of gas."

• Daily Herald staff writers Lee Filas, Marie Wilson, Russell Lissau and Lenore Adkins contributed to this report.

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