Sunday's monster snowstorm left thousands of holiday travelers wondering if they'd ever reach their destinations in time to celebrate the New Year.
With plans to visit family and friends in Norway, and to simultaneously celebrate my son's 18th birthday, this reporter tried to ignore ominous signs that Sunday just wasn't the day to set off on a trans-Atlantic Scandinavian adventure. During a season that had so far only produced a few less-than-noteworthy snow events, warnings of Sunday's blizzard-like conditions were easy to dismiss.
Never underestimate Mother Nature.
As I write this, it's Monday night, and my son and I are among the passengers seated aboard a flight bound for Stavanger, with connections in Stockholm and Oslo. Far from our East End home, the scene feels all too familiar. It's Hour 30 of an odyssey of airport closures and misadventures that has culminated in yet another roadblock in the form a de-icing truck that has caught fire.
Travelers arriving at Newark International Airport on Sunday were greeted by departure boards plastered with a plethora of flight cancellations. Most airlines gave travelers ample advance warning, and the opportunity to rebook travel plans with no penalty due to advancing harsh weather conditions, including more than two feet of snow and up to 60-mile-per-hour winds. But a few intrepid carriers listed their flights as on time, even as up to 24 inches of snow slammed the airport and left scores of travelers stranded.
Some airlines insisted flights to Copenhagen and Stockholm were to take off on time. But, after boarding the plane and spending five hours on the runway, during which time a cheerful crew passed out a complimentary happy hour, dinner and a movie, the pilot delivered the bad news: The flight was officially canceled, joining the thousands of flights nixed across the country as the fierce storm socked the eastern seaboard.
Inside the airport again, passengers queued up into a long line, waiting to receive vouchers for a night's hotel stay. The catch? With virtually no visibility, and rapidly deteriorating road conditions, there was no ground transportation — no taxis. No trains. No buses. The Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit suspended service, so there was no way back to the East End. No way to leave the airport at all.
Even the airport shuttles stopped running.
"The most fun was getting a hotel voucher but having no way to get to the hotel," said Sweden-bound Rebecca Johnson.
Passengers receiving vouchers for hotel stays were told airlines would provide complimentary shuttle service. But only two vans appeared – unrelated to Newark airlines. Word of the shuttles spread rapidly as passengers begged for more information. "There's a list," said one airport employee. "And it's women and children only."
With not enough blankets to go around, women and children again, received the sparse supply.
"I felt like we were vying for the lifeboats on the Titanic," said New York resident Charlie Bible, on his way to visit his girlfriend in Paris for a New Year's celebration.
Jelted Schoot, an Amsterdam resident on the last leg of a journey that took him from San Diego to Charlotte, said when he contacted the hotel, staff "wouldn't take our vouchers."
To make matters worse, he said, he received no food voucher and nothing to eat or drink from his carrier. "It's hard to believe that they treat people like this – not even a cup of coffee."
Left with nowhere to go, displaced passengers parked themselves on the floor, camping out on cold linoleum without cots or blankets supplied at other shuttered airports. Bible slept on the stilled baggage carousel, noting it had carpeting.
"It was kind of like a refugee camp, except we had food," he commented.
But even complimentary food vouchers lost value when airport eateries ran out of provisions, chefs and servers — employees were not able to venture to their posts as airports remained closed. Travelers with no other options ordered French fries for breakfast and stocking up on trail mix and candy bars at the newsstand.
Elin Rina, on her way to visit relatives in Sweden, had a toddler. Her daughter cried most of the night and barely slept. "It was hard," she said.
Despite adverse conditions, travelers remained upbeat, forming alliances and friendships as they shared the stories of their lives.
"It didn't take long to start smiling, and seeing the same faces," said Linda Meath, on her way to Norway. But despite the novelty of the adventure, she said, "I only want to do this once."
Having seen similar scenarios unfold on television, Meath said, "I like it better when I'm watching from my couch, feeling sorry for the people stranded at the airport. Last night, I felt like a homeless person, with my cart and my hoodie, sleeping on the floor. I was freezing."
The Selvy family, gospel singers on their way from Arkansas to perform in Italy, huddled together for warmth by an artificial Christmas tree.
The Selvys were seated near an electrical outlet — a hot commodity among today's technology dependent travelers. Outlets were in high demand as passengers scrambled to charge phones and laptops.
Portraits of tenderness emerged — Pennsylvania mom Pam Johnson stayed all night at the airport to see her daughter Rebecca safely onto a flight. And Giacomo and Stephanie Delisi, headed to Italy for a romantic sojourn, tried to reach out to seniors who spoke Italian.
"My grandmother has a friend on my flight," Delisi said. "We just tried to help." The seniors, she added, "were so lost."
Tired, cold, and most wearing the same clothes they'd been traveling in for two days, passengers at Newark lined up eagerly for the first outbound flights as the airport closure was lifted.
Despite another five-hour delay, our flight to Stockholm did take off, to a raucous round of applause.
Looking back on his experience, Bible said, "I spoke today with a man who was going home to Italy for his father's funeral. He hadn't seen him in two years. That just put all of this in perspective."
Lisa Finn is a Southold resident and freelance reporter for North Fork Patch, Hampton Bays Patch and Southampton Patch.