Blizzard 2011 survivors recall their day a year ago
A year ago today, the suburbs were snow-dazed.
The third-largest snowstorm since 1886 pounded the area with more than 20 inches of snow, drifts up to 10 feet tall and wind gusts up to 60 mph.
Well-traveled thoroughfares became snow-covered parking lots, trapping untold scores of motorists, many of whom simply abandoned their vehicles.
Schools and workplaces closed early after the snow began falling that Tuesday morning. Many remained that way the next couple days, giving students and adults alike some snow days to remember.
On this anniversary, we look back at some of the suburban tales of the Blizzard of 2011: a man trapped for 16 hours on Route 72 near Hampshire; Aurora police rescue efforts with a vehicle known as "the tank"; snow plows getting stuck in Arlington Heights; and entrepreneurs selling "snow-maggedon" T-shirts.
Stranded 16 hours
Frank Huss, 45, of Genoa was stranded for 16 hours — from 7 p.m. Feb. 1 to 11 a.m. the next day — in his 2010 Honda Accord on Route 72 west of Walker Road in Hampshire.
He eventually was rescued by snowmobilers but had to leave his car on the road until it could be towed.
Many would call that kind of experience something like "awful," "terrible," or "harrowing." But Huss just said it was ... irritating.
"Being stuck out there, you just can't do anything," he said. "All my family was worried because I'm a diabetic. If I could walk somewhere, I would have, if I knew how far west or east I was (from shelter)."
Huss was on his way home from Bensenville after finishing his shift as a truck driver. He had a full tank of gas and kept the car running on and off for warmth. Luckily, he also had food leftover from lunch — fruit, yogurt, soda and a candy bar.
Throughout the night, he listened to weather reports on the radio and talked via cellphone to his wife, Tracie, who in turn made tons of calls to relatives and friends to help rescue her husband.
Adding insult to injury, Huss said he had to pay a $300 towing bill to recover his car after the blizzard. Irritating.
'Tank' to the rescue
When the squad cars of officers trying to help stranded motorists began getting stuck themselves, Aurora police knew it was time to bring in the heavy equipment — the Special Response Team armored vehicle some refer to as "the tank."
"It was one of the only vehicles we had access to to drive around town and make sure people weren't stuck in their cars in snowdrifts," Sgt. Ricky Ahlgren said about the 9-ton, four-wheel drive vehicle, manufactured by Massachusetts-based Lenco Armored Vehicles and available only to law enforcement and the military.
With the heavy-duty vehicle and the help of a few snowplow drivers, Aurora police assisted 108 stranded motorists during the blizzard. A common site of such motoring distress was Route 59 and Ogden Avenue.
Ahlgren and the others who accompanied him in the tank usually work 4 p.m. to midnight, but he said they stayed until about 3:30 a.m. helping drivers escape snowed-in vehicles and get to their homes or a gas station for warmth.
"We decided to stick around in case someone needed help," he said. "There were a lot of stranded motorist calls to dispatch, and we responded to all of those because the police cars couldn't get to them."
Drivers helped by police had to leave their cars on the road (even the Special Response Team vehicle couldn't tow them out of ditches or snow packs), but Ahlgren said they still were glad for the lift to a safer and warmer place.
"It's our job to go out and help people to make sure the citizens are safe," he said. "You've got to find a way to make that happen, and that's what we did."
The snow was coming down so heavily and blowing so much, it wasn't embarrassing for veteran snowplow driver Anthony Butera of Arlington Heights public works to get stuck in the village's downtown
Butera came in early for his 12-hour 11 p.m. plowing shift because he didn't know how bad the streets would get, and he couldn't sleep anyway.
"The visibility was horrible," Butera said. "The wind was bad and there were drifts bigger than the snowplow. You weren't sure where you were on the street. You had to go straight. If you turned a corner you were likely to get stuck."
Butera's truck got stuck at Campbell Street and Chestnut Avenue, and his crew chief, Bill Oakley, used a front endloader to pull it out.
Even worse was when Butera had to swerve at the last second to avoid a car abandoned on Evergreen Avenue just south of Northwest Highway, U.S. Route 14, only to bury the car deeper in snow.
On the other hand, Butera moved some snow to help a Mount Prospect firefighter drive out of the Vail Avenue garage to get to work.
With 11 a.m. and the end of his shift, Butera drove home and worked on his own driveway for about 90 minutes before he could go to bed. And, yes, a little later the Schaumburg street crews buried his driveway again.
A disaster always inspires entrepreneurship. Marc Mallen started designing T-shirts as the snow fell.
He came up with three styles: "I survived Snow-maggedon 2011," "I survived Snow-gasm 2011" and "I survived the Blizzard of 2011." The Lake Villa-area man says he sold about 200 shirts. "Anytime something happens and a catchy slogan is there, there's a potential sale."
Mallen said the actual printing of the T-shirts occurred in his Antioch shop during the blizzard.
"I only live a couple miles away from the shop, so I drove in and started printing them," he said. "It wasn't that bad, though our metal awning didn't make it. The snow was too heavy."
Mallen said he saw several people wearing his T-shirts while on the street and in stores right after the blizzard ended, and he got orders from as far away as Bolingbrook and Chicago.
• Daily Herald staff writers Elena Ferrarin, Deborah Donovan and Lee Filas contributed to this report
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