LAPORTE, Ind. – Kate Ergang wasn't worried when two jackknifed semi-tractors trapped her and a friend on an Indiana highway in a blizzard. They had eaten dinner already and had blankets and pillows in the car. They talked, listened to their iPods and dozed off.
But the May college graduate had a few minutes of panic Monday morning when she woke and realized that nearly 12 hours later, they were in the same spot.
More than 100 vehicles were stuck Monday on Indiana's snow-covered highways. Strong winds and blowing snow hampered snow plow drivers' efforts to free them, but all motorists had been safely rescued by Monday evening, said Amy Bluhm, a dispatcher with LaPorte County 911.
The wind and heavy lake effect snow were part of a slow-moving storm that has been crawling across the Midwest since Friday night. At least 15 deaths have been attributed to the storm, which dumped nearly 2 feet of snow in parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin before moving into Michigan and Indiana. Monday, it stretched further east, with snow in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
Up to 16 inches of snow fell in northwest Indiana, where 70 drivers got stuck in drifts on a section of Indiana 2 in the Valparaiso area. Ergang and her friend, Allison Frank, were among an unknown number trapped on U.S. 30.
They were driving home to Crown Point on Sunday after visiting friends in central Indiana. All was fine until they reached Wanatah, about 35 miles southwest of South Bend.
"It was a whiteout. It was like a tornado of snow," Ergang said.
Unable to see if a car was in front of her, Frank would nudge her 2000 Ford Focus slowly forward, stopping periodically, before all traffic came to a standstill about 7 p.m. because the semi-tractors had jackknifed at an interchange east of Valparaiso. Frank turned the car off, and the two made beds in their seats with the blankets and pillows.
In the morning, they flagged down a police officer headed the opposite way who told them a 7-mile stretch of the highway had been closed. The road to Wanatah opened a little later, about 6:30 a.m., and they headed back there. They and dozens of other motorists spent the next three hours in a service station convenience store, where they could use the bathroom and bought food.
"It was definitely a relief to get out of the car and get in the warmth and talk with somebody else about what was going on," Ergang said when reached by phone later at home.
Indiana state police Lt. Lou Brown said some people made the situation worse by driving on roads that were closed or abandoning vehicles that got stuck.
"People would get into a snowdrift and couldn't go anywhere so they'd just leave the vehicle to get out of the weather," he said. "It just plugs things up and then snow plows can't get around them."
Also, people who get out of their cars risk being hit by other vehicles or plows. The best thing for people to do, Brown said, is stay home.
At least eight people in four states, including Indiana, died in traffic accidents related to the storm, and a 79-year-old man snow-blowing the end of his driveway in western Wisconsin was killed when a plow backed into him.
Five more died after shoveling or blowing snow, and Kenneth Swanson, 58, of rural River Falls, Wis., died when a metal shed collapsed from the heavy snow, pinning him under debris and about 3 feet of snow.
Along with the wind and snow, the upper Midwest was gripped by bone-chilling cold brought by arctic air that swept in behind the storm. Wind chills were below zero in many places Monday, and schools in Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and other states shut down.
Katie Muratore, a 20-year-old biology major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wore a calf-length overcoat with a fur-lined hood and hid her face behind a thick scarf as she hurried along a walkway between the campus and state Capitol. She usually takes the bus to class, but everyone else had the same idea Monday and she couldn't find any room.
"It's like sardines on the bus today," Muratore said.
In Dearborn, Mich., Jeff Smith dug his car out of his driveway Monday morning — with no gloves or hat.
"Gloves make it hard to shovel and my hair is still wet. So it's either you get a cold or you mess up your hair, so I risk the cold," said Smith, 57, a 30-plus-year Ford Motor Co. employee who was glad his job is close to home.
The 12-degree temperature didn't stop hundreds of fans from lining up hours before free tickets to Monday night's football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Giants became available at 9 a.m. at Ford Field. The game was moved to Detroit after the Minneapolis Metrodome's inflated roof collapsed Sunday under the weight of heavy snow. The Lions said about 30,000 tickets were distributed before 11 a.m.
In Minneapolis, stadium officials were trying to repair the roof in time for the Vikings' next home game, Dec. 20 against Chicago.
Back in Indiana, truck drivers stopped at the Junction City Restaurant in nearby Rolling Prairie near the intersection of U.S. 20 and Indiana 2 for lunch, hoping the conditions would improve. They said driving was particularly difficult in areas where wind was blowing across open farmland, sweeping the snow onto highways and making it hard to see.
Bill Sullivan, 73, of Rolling Prairie, lives in the area and drove over to have lunch with two friends. He said even their 2-mile trip was difficult.
"We couldn't even see on the way over," Sullivan said. "It was blinding. You can't see nothing. We're going home and getting out of this crap."
Associated Press writers Ken Kusmer and Tom Davies in Indianapolis, Todd Richmond in Madison, Wis., Jeff Karoub in Dearborn, Mich., and Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.