Debi Pelican was stranded in her vehicle on Interstate 25 so long amid the March blizzard Wednesday that she started to mark time based on where she was in her lengthy “Gone With the Wind” audio book.
The Pulitzer Prize winning novel is not known for brevity, and in audio form it comes out to about 49 hours of listening across 40 CDs. Pelican breezed through eight of them while sitting stranded in her vehicle Wednesday on southbound I-25, near the Greenland exit.
She was among more than 1,000 other motorists throughout the state who were trapped in their vehicles for hours — some even overnight — by blowing snow and hurricane-force winds during Colorado’s historic “bomb cyclone” event.
More than 24 hours later, she still hadn’t made it home Thursday.
The Interstate remained closed between Castle Rock and Colorado Springs until about 3 p.m. Thursday while crews worked to clear hundreds of cars stuck or abandoned along the route.
Pelican was planning to finish the remaining wait exercising at a 24-Hour Fitness in Castle Rock. “I can’t sit anymore," she said.
The 68-year-old had set out from Denver, where she was babysitting her grandchildren, about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday hoping to beat the storm home, but found herself stalled by a major pileup between Larkspur and Monument.
That’s where she’d spend the next nine hours, melting snow for her 14-year-old chocolate Labrador Shine, and sustaining herself on the pretzels and Gatorade she usually reserved for her grandchildren.
If she shut off the engine, her windows would freeze over with ice, making her Subaru Outback feel even smaller as it rocked in winds reported between 80-96 mph.
“You just wanted it to stop, but man it never did,” Pelican said. “It became scary when it got dark.”
Help came about 8 p.m., when troopers with the Colorado State Patrol dug out her car and sent her back north in the southbound lane to Castle Rock. She passed numerous stranded semitrucks and abandoned vehicles on the way.
“I’ve never felt so great about red flashing lights,” Pelican said.
She’d spend the night with family friends when hotels reported full occupancy.
Before the rescue, Pelican said she and neighboring motorists began to joke about how long they could live on coffee beans and Shine’s dog food, if needed.
“It’s funny but you do start thinking about, ‘What’s my plan going to be?’” Pelican said. “We’ve all heard about having water, a sleeping bag and good shoes in the car. I would take it seriously.”
James Lutack of Pueblo was stuck in another pileup on Monument Hill about seven miles ahead of Pelican. His Dodge Caravan slammed into the back of a vehicle in front of him as he was also hit from behind.
An accordion effect followed.
“It was so quiet after because all the engines turned off and you could just hear the boom-boom-boom-boom of cars piling up behind me,” Lutack said. “It was eerie.”
Like, Pelican, he’d left Denver when the precipitation was still mainly rain, thinking he could beat the storm on his commute south, but things got “brutal” around Castle Rock and only continued to deteriorate, he said.
After the crash, Lutack said he heard four people were taken to area hospitals with minor injuries, but most of the motorists involved stayed with their vehicles. Some vehicles had windows busted out by the crash, forcing owners to seek shelter in the cars of strangers until help arrived.
Lutack didn’t have heat, but said he came prepared with boots, extra clothing and a blanket.
He was among the lucky few who were only stranded on the interstate for a couple hours. A state trooper drove him to a church in Larkspur where he spent most of the afternoon before being trucked to the warming shelter at the Douglas County fairgrounds in Castle Rock, where he spent the night.
He praised first responders who kept him and others safe during the worst of the storm, including a young Fort Carson Army medic with the last name of Smith who he says left northbound traffic to assist with the crash.
“People do not realize how dangerous (first responders’) jobs can be and many were up all night tending to citizens of our state and other travelers,” Lutack said. "Thank you."