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Thousands Stranded by Trains, Planes After Northeast Storm

Stranded Travelers

Dec. 27, 2010: Air passengers that stayed overnight in the airport pass the time while waiting for news of their canceled flights at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.AP

Thousands of travelers trying to get home after the holiday weekend hoped to board flights Tuesday after a massive blizzard that left the Northeast buried under more than 2 feet of snow.

Two of New York's major airports -- LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International -- began to receive inbound flights on Monday night. Newark Liberty began receiving inbound flights Tuesday morning. Nearly 1,500 total flights were canceled at all three airports.

"Everyone was clapping toward the end," said Patrick Wacker, 37, aboard an Air Canada flight from Toronto that was the first to land at LaGuardia at about 7:40 p.m. Monday. Wacker had been stranded in Toronto for a day while trying to get back to New York after visiting his parents in Frankfurt, Germany.

Air travel in the nation's busiest, most crowded airspace nearly shut down, and thousands of stranded passengers turned terminals into open-air hotels while they waited for planes to take off and land on plowed runways.

A tractor-trailer skidded off a road and smashed into a house in Maine. A woman went into labor on a New Jersey highway, causing a traffic jam that stranded 30 vehicles. Rails on the normally reliable New York subway shorted out. Winds topping 65 mph ripped power lines, leaving tens of thousands of people in the dark across New England.

This storm simply didn't play fair, cold-cocking the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow on a holiday weekend when everyone seemed to be out of town, groggy with holiday cheer or just unprepared.

In New York, outer-borough residents complained of a sluggish response by snow plow crews who still hadn't finished clearing the streets. State Sen. Carl Kruger, a Democrat who represents Brooklyn, called the city's response a "colossal failure." Fire officials said the unplowed streets and abandoned cars made it harder to respond to emergencies, including a five-alarm, wind-whipped blaze at a Queens apartment building Monday night.

A testy Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the city's cleanup effort, saying the crews were being slowed down by abandoned cars on the streets.

"There's no reason for everybody to panic," he said. "Our city is doing exactly what you'd want it to do."

After spending Sunday night tossing and turning on airport floors, thousands of bleary-eyed travelers spent Monday standing in lines, begging for flights, fighting for taxis and hunting for hotel rooms.

The storm wreaked havoc on almost every form of conveyance: from the buses at the nation's busiest terminal near Times Square to the region's usually punctual commuter trains.

Little problems quickly snowballed: On New Jersey's Garden State Parkway, a motorist struggled to find the shoulder of the road after his wife went into labor, causing a traffic jam that eventually stranded 30 vehicles, state trooper Chris Menello said. Among them were two buses full of people returning from Atlantic City.

Across the region, the storm's aftermath was punctuated by surreal moments, like the sight of Adrian Traylor, 29, roaming the Newark airport terminal in a Scottish kilt and bare legs as subfreezing winds howled outside.

Traylor, who lives in Scotland, was on his way to visit relatives in Las Vegas and said he wore the kilt to impress his family.

"I didn't think I'd be wearing it this long," he said.

In Newport, Maine, 81-year-old Marguerite Fowler and her husband were asleep when an 18-wheeler full of tree bark lost control on an icy road at 2:10 a.m. and obliterated their home's sun room.

"I thought it was a bomb," Fowler said. "We don't need all that excitement at our age."

Christopher Mullen returned from sunny Cancun, Mexico, to find his car buried in the snow in long-term parking at New York's Kennedy airport. After trying to dig it out and getting soaked in the process, he finally gave up and took the subway -- which promptly broke down.

Mullen and his girlfriend spent eight hours in a freezing subway car, shivering under a thin blanket.

The storm was New York City's sixth worst since 1869, when records began, said Adrienne Leptich, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

A Feb. 11-12, 2006, storm dropped 26.9 inches of snow on Central Park, breaking the previous record, set in 1947, by half an inch. The storm that hit the city Sunday left 20 inches of snow in Central Park.

The storm spared no one, not even men who travel on ice for a living. A bus carrying the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team got stuck in the blizzard for four hours while trying to return to their hotel after a game against the New Jersey Devils. And, members of the U.S. luge team lost two days of training after they were stranded on their way to Koenigssee, Germany.

In Philadelphia, pedestrians dodged chunks of ice blown off skyscrapers. New York taxi driver Shafqat Hayat struggled to get his car moving Monday after spending the night trapped on an unplowed street.

"I've seen a lot of snow before, but on the roads, I've never seen so many cars stuck in 22 years," Hayat said.

Some travelers tried to make the best of it. At the Newark airport, Frank Mann, his son 9-year-old son Stephen and his girlfriend Jackie Douglas said their night on the terminal floor was sort of like taking a camping trip.

They made beds out of luggage trays turned upside down, ate hot dogs from the snack bar and even did some bird-watching: pigeons seeking refuge from the elements were taking baths in puddles of water dripping from the ceiling.

"This airport becomes a whole different place at night," said Mann, a 53-year-old lawyer from Houston.

When things got boring, Stephen pulled out his Kindle to finish a book he had started before getting stranded.

The book was about another youngster stranded far from home by bad weather: L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.