Roads closed, thousands stranded

Oct. 24 - A ferocious 24-hour blizzard that dumped an inch of snow an hour on top of a thick slab of ice paralyzed the Front Range and Eastern Plains of Colorado Saturday, closing every highway east of the mountains, stranding thousands of people and grounding two airports.

For Denver, it was the biggest October storm since 1923, according to the National Weather Service.

More than 450 cars stalled on Interstate 25 between Denver and Colorado Springs by midday Saturday, triggering a ban on all nonemergency driving from Wyoming to New Mexico. Dozens of abandoned vehicles lined the roads in eastern Colorado, and a number of people were still unaccounted for Saturday evening.

Gov. Roy Romer declared a state of emergency early Saturday and called out the U.S. Army and the Colorado National Guard to help rescue motorists.

Though predictions for today are for warmer temperatures and even some sunshine, officials warned caution on the roads. A heavy, hard layer of ice will remain on the streets and highways, said Dan Hopkins, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Along the Front Range, Humvees and helicopters were called out Saturday to rescue stranded motorists, a so-called retail resort was turned into an emergency relief center, Denver International Airport was closed for the first time in its short history, and the Colorado Springs Airport was closed for the first time anyone could remember.

Snowdrifts to 8 feet, along with 36 mph winds and temperatures falling into the teens, hampered rescue efforts. Snowplows were called back in some areas because Humvees with chains got stuck.

Weld County reported one death, but officials were unsure whether the death of a man found inside his car was weather-related.

For the believers and nonbelievers of the warnings, the name most mentioned on Saturday was El Nino, the ocean-warming weathermaker that obviously does not mimic its name of "baby boy.''

"I think this storm should be named "El Meano,'Ç'' said Capt. Larry Tolar of the Colorado State Patrol.

Scientists were more serious.

"Actually I'm calling this one El Nino's No. 1,'' said Klaus Wolter, an El Nino expert at the University of Colorado's Climate Diagnostic Center.

"We may have to wait until spring for No. 2, but I am convinced that this is the first big storm that can be linked to El Nino.''

Across the eastern half of the state, the snow totals were staggering. Turkey Creek Canyon was buried under 48 inches, Coal Creek Canyon reported 47 inches, 36 inches piled up west of Boulder, 28 inches fell at Loveland and snowdrifts up to 8 feet blew in around Limon. But the storm barely brushed across the mountains, leaving between 6 and 12 inches in some areas, less than 3 inches in the valleys.

DIA, billed as the world's most weatherproof airport at its opening in early 1995, was strangled by more than 30 cars that spun out and off Pena Boulevard near Interstate 70 Friday night, causing more than 100 people to be stranded on the road. An estimated 4,000 passengers and others were forced to spend the night Friday in the DIA terminal and concourses.

Last week, Mayor Wellington Webb called a press conference to show off the equipment that would be used to combat any weather brought on by El Nino. It was a promise made with the memory of former Mayor Bill McNichols, who some say lost his political career after streets went unplowed during the blizzard of 1982.

On Saturday, the debate of whether city politics revolve on bad weather was renewed.

"To say the city failed is putting it mildly,'' said Stephen Deweese of Westminster.

Deweese, who was warming himself in a stranded RTD bus Saturday afternoon, spent 12 hours on Pena Boulevard without seeing any highway or law enforcement personnel.

"They knew about this days ahead of time. But nothing was done about it,'' he said.

Webb defended his decision to focus on snow removal in the city, at the expense of DIA and Pena Boulevard, saying he wanted to keep the primary city operational. But late Saturday, Webb admitted the city needs to improve on clearing the path to DIA.

"It's clear and obvious that the system on Pena Boulevard did not work as it should when there's a traffic accident on Pena Boulevard. There has to be a better system in removing accidents and stalled vehicles that can keep part of traffic moving,'' he said.

The city began dispatching buses to the airport Saturday evening, offering rides into Denver to stranded passengers.

"We're going to continue to plow those routes all night and hope we don't get the same kind of white-out,'' said Webb.

The pileups on Pena Boulevard also stalled a scheduled 1 p.m. departure for the Denver Broncos' charter flight to Buffalo. The team, however, took off at 7:15 p.m. Saturday.

Interstate 25 from Douglas County to Colorado Springs was a white wrecking yard, with more than 450 cars piled up by midmorning Saturday. Park Meadows mall was set up as an emergency center, and more than 100 people stayed overnight Friday at the posh shopping center.

Streets on Denver's snow routes were icy and snowpacked but passable.

The Rustic Tavern, at the crossroad of two snow routes, West 29th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard, found itself in a good position for some bad weather business. Five patrons had already arrived by midmorning and were playing a video golf game.

Casey Hurley called the bar at 7:30 a.m. to see if it was open for coffee, thinking the 2-mile drive from home would be short.

"Two hours later I finally made it, and by then I needed a beer,'' he said.

The blizzard made for fun for kids, if they could make it to a place where the snow wasn't as tall as themselves. In Green Mountain in Jefferson County, there was too much snow for the sleds.

At Beech Park near West Alameda Parkway and Utah Avenue, "it was so deep they couldn't go down,'' resident Wayne Swenson said of the brave sledders attempting the hill.

In Washington Park, boys were offering to scoop walks for $20. North Denver rates were more reasonable. Thor Edwards and Zach Reed, both 10, were offering car clearances for $10.

"We've already made 12 bucks,'' Thor said. "Today I might go get a new sled.''

One of the hardest-hit areas of the state was Elbert County, southeast of Denver. The sheriff's office reported nearly 3 feet of snow, with drifts up to 8 feet. National Guard Humvees with chains got stuck, the sheriff's office said, and a trucker reported seeing not a single car along I-70 at Agate since Friday night.

In Pueblo, as many as 75,000 people had been without power since 9:30 p.m. Friday, and several emergency shelters had been set up. National Weather Service employees there were stuck at the Pueblo Airport because of the deep snow.

"I haven't seen this kind of frequent snowfall in my 42 years of life,'' said meteorologist Steve Carmel. "We can barely get our doors open.''

Three motorists in two cars were reported stuck since Friday night on Colorado 94 east of Punkin Center in Lincoln County. Snowplows were still trying to reach them Saturday night. One man, traveling with his 64-year-old mother, said by cellular phone that they had run out of gas at 3 a.m. Saturday and had not had heat since.

Fort Collins reported 18 inches between Friday and Saturday, breaking a 1969 record for snowfall during a 24-hour period.

"Fort Collins is basically shut down,'' said meteorologist Jim Wirshborn of Mountain States Weather Services.