One day after hundreds of Nebraska and Iowa students took part in the March for Life in Washington, D.C., their “pro-life” signs were turned into sleds. Packed snow was shaped into church altars. Tree branches were made into crosses. And games and singing turned into multiple-hour events as the young people found ways to pass the time on the snow-covered Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Their buses were among 500 vehicles stranded along about 23 miles of Interstate 76 in the winter storm system that slammed the Eastern U.S. The Midlanders — all safe — became stuck Friday evening about two hours east of Pittsburgh, between Bedford and Somerset.
After nearly 24 hours, most of the roughly 500 stranded Nebraskans and Iowans were either on their way home or at area hotels for the night.
The snow in the vicinity was estimated by the Turnpike Authority to be 2 feet deep in spots by midday Saturday.
Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said the initial problem Friday night appeared to involve one or more semitrailers that jackknifed as their drivers tried without success to climb the hill on the eastern slopes of the Allegheny Mountains that leads to the Allegheny Tunnel.
“From there, it was pretty much a domino effect,” he said.
But by Saturday afternoon, traffic slowly started moving again as the roads were cleared. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf had mobilized the National Guard to assist, and dozens of area first responders also had pitched in to help.
The 316 people on six busloads from the Archdiocese of Omaha stayed in Bedford for the night. They planned to evaluate conditions this morning before deciding when to hit the road again. One bus had broken down on the Interstate; travel plans for those passengers were unclear.
A seventh bus for the Omaha Archdiocese, from Norfolk, made it out of the storm in time.
Two buses from the Newman Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, carrying about 80 people from UNL and the University of Nebraska at Kearney, also were planning to stay the night in Bedford.
Buses from the Lincoln Diocese also headed home once they were dug out and the road was cleared.
Two buses from Iowans for Life — with about 110 Iowans from Des Moines, Sioux City, Spirit Lake, Denison and Council Bluffs — were stopping for dinner, then planned to drive through the night to get home. In addition, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald reported that five buses carrying about 250 people from Dubuque County Right to Life, an affiliate of Iowans for Life, were affected. At least one of its buses had begun to move Saturday evening. It was unclear when the group’s other buses would be able to travel, the Telegraph Herald said.
Joe Arkfeld, a senior at Skutt High School in Omaha, said he and his peers made the best of it. He said the standstill was just another stop in their “pilgrimage.”
Arkfeld was on one of seven Omaha Archdiocese buses that carried young people, chaperones and a number of priests to the annual march outside the U.S. Supreme Court building to protest the high court’s 1973 decision to legalize abortion.
The buses had left Washington, D.C., ahead of schedule in order to avoid being stuck in for even longer. As it turned out, Washington had more than 30 inches of snow by Saturday.
Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese, said the Omaha students had been “prayerful and patient.” He added that the students, along with a busload of Minnesota students, created a makeshift chapel and celebrated Mass on Saturday morning. Groups from Lincoln and Iowa also organized Masses outside their buses.
“That’s the spirit of these young people,” McNeil said. While they were disappointed that their trip was cut short, they were making the most of things, he said.
Archbishop George Lucas called and prayed with the pilgrims Saturday morning via speakerphone. He told them that he was proud of their missionary and gospel spirit. His talk raised their spirits, McNeil said.
Christine Quist of Doniphan, Nebraska, a parent chaperone with the Lincoln Diocese group, said Saturday that morale was very high and that there had been a lot of music — including karaoke — and praying. She said the bus drivers, priests and chaperones and students have been “awesome.”
She said the Lincoln contingent included students from Hastings, Wahoo, Nebraska City, McCook, York and Lincoln.
Cheryl Rambour, who was with students from Columbus and Columbus Scotus High Schools in the Omaha Archdiocese group, sounded relieved Saturday night.
“We got out!”
Her group was at a hotel in Bedford with “way too many to a room,” but she said she was glad to not be spending another night on a bus wedged by snow.
While they were stuck, boys had used pizza boxes and pro-life signs as shovels to try to clear snow from around their bus.
The National Guard arrived at the scene Saturday morning, checked on everyone, provided water and then started clearing the roads.
Ricardo Izquierdo, a chaperone from St. Albert Catholic School in Council Bluffs, said the National Guard members are the real heroes.
“They’ve been working their butts off out here,” he said.
Local fire departments, medical crews and as other personnel, with help from the Guard, went vehicle to vehicle, tapping on windows and checking the well-being of those inside.
Authorities had reported no injuries, though some people were taken from the area because they needed medicine, such as insulin.
By the afternoon, a small lane was cleared for cars to get through, but the buses and semitrailers were stuck until the evening.
Saturday night, Izquierdo said, the group was headed home.
Facebook updates along with email blasts to parents and texts from students were keeping the travelers connected with loved ones in Nebraska — though for many, cellphone batteries were drained by Saturday night.
Emma Rashilla, a junior from Lincoln with the Newman Center group, said she and her peers were doing well but were eager to get home.
Rashilla said they spent Saturday morning walking outside in the snow, playing games, praying and sleeping. Saturday afternoon, she and other students attended a second Mass that was celebrated in the snow.
Rashilla said even with the long trip back, going to the March for Life was worth it; she said the cause is important to her and her peers.
Most of the Nebraskans started for home from the nation’s capital about 2:30 p.m. Friday and became stuck about 6:30 p.m.; the UNL students left a few hours later and became stuck about 9:30 p.m.
Whitney Bradley, coordinator of the event for the Omaha Archdiocese, said the students made the trip to add their support to the anti-abortion rally. They were originally scheduled to leave Saturday night.
“The weather made us leave early, but in general it did not affect anything,” Bradley said. “We had a wonderful March for Life. The kids were happy and productive.”
Arkfeld, the Skutt student from Omaha, echoed that sentiment.
“This trip was for the babies,” he said. “We didn’t come here on vacation, but on a pilgrimage.”
World-Herald staff writer Emerson Clarridge contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1304, email@example.com