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Griffon helicopters help rescue snowed-in travellers

December 15, 2010  By CBC News

Dec. 15, 2010, Sarnia, Ont. - Rescuers in military helicopters, snowmobiles and heavy trucks have freed the more than 200 stranded motorists who had been stuck on southwestern Ontario's Highway 402 since a heavy snowstorm hit Monday.

Ontario Provincial Police confirmed Tuesday night that officers and Canadian Forces personnel had removed 237 people from their stranded vehicles on the highway near Sarnia.

Estimates initially suggested that about 300 people were trapped along a 30-kilometre stretch between the Sarnia city limits and Kerwood Road, just outside Lambton County. But police said that figure was based on the number of vehicles abandoned. Some people escaped on their own.

The OPP said officials checked 200 tractor trailers and 124 cars that were trapped in the deep snow along the highway. So far, there have been no reports of missing people in the storm.

Temperatures, snow, highway worked against drivers


Powerful winds, heavy snow and cold temperatures were the driving force behind the nasty weather, according to CBC meteorologist Nick Czernkovich.

"What's happening is you're getting the cold air rushing over the lake, it picks up the moisture, and boom," he said.

Wind gusts of up to 78 km/h were recorded at the Sarnia airport. Nearby Pretoria recorded 32 centimetres of snow since Monday.

Czernkovich said while snowsqualls are not uncommon, a combination of three elements made the situation in southwest Ontario particularly daunting.

"The combination of the cold temperatures, which meant more snow; the winds, which led to blowing snow and whiteouts and drifting snow and because Highway 402 parallels the shoreline of Lake Huron."

The snowsquall covered most of the highway. Because there are no major exit routes from Highway 402 that lead in a different direction, motorists were basically trapped in the storm with nowhere to escape, he said.

"Once you get stuck on Highway 402, you're in that snowsquall the entire time," he said.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said two Griffon helicopters were used for the rescue, while five others were on standby in an effort co-ordinated by Ontario Provincial Police. The military helicopters rescued 66 stranded motorists and performed one medical evacuation for treatment this afternoon.

Motorists picked up by helicopter were airlifted to warming stations provided by police.

OPP picked up people as they came across them, using a plow that towed a school bus.

A Hercules aircraft flew over the area to monitor conditions and a Canadian Forces ground battalion was on standby with heavy trucks to rescue more drivers, if the OPP requested more assistance.

Some motorists had been stuck in snowdrifts along Highway 402 since Monday afternoon. MacKay said some didn't want to leave their cars.


Ontario Ministry of Transportation road closures

Police established an emergency operations centre and worked with Emergency Management Ontario (EMO) to co-ordinate provincial assistance.

The military responded to a request for assistance from the OPP just before midnight Monday, after Lambton County officials declared a state of emergency.

"We're working together to make sure this … rescue initiative is underway full-steam," said Rektor.

Rektor said emergency workers had been on the phone with some of the people who were forced to spend the night in their vehicles.

"Other than being obviously frustrated by the situation, their health is in good condition and they're just sitting there, biding their time and waiting for rescue," Rektor said.

The crisis workers gave the stranded travellers tips about staying warm and safe, and advised them to pool their resources while they waited for rescue crews who were struggling with extreme cold, snow and high winds. Motorists were told to make sure their car exhaust was clear of snow and that fresh air got into their vehicles for fear of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The military recommended motorists stay in their cars and not try to attract a helicopter pilot's attention.

"They're just going to have to ride this out until we can get there," Rektor said earlier Tuesday.


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