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Harrowing night on the highway


I am writing you today in optimism that what I am about to share may benefit the lives of those that read it, and may cause abrupt efforts to be made to better a situation that I believe demands immediate attention. 

I am aware that, in writing you, I will be exposed to public scrutiny due to the fact that I did not personally inquire as to the highway driving conditions between Marystown and Goobies prior to leaving my residence in Marystown; however, this is not the time for me to be selfish. I hope that your readers will take the time to read my recollection of what I refer to as the most terrifying night of my life.

On Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, we were in the middle of a power outage due to recent poor weather and a province-wide power conservation. It was cold, and in the Marystown/Burin area, we had just received a considerable amount of snow. I am presently residing in the Marystown vicinity, as this is my current place of employment. Due to the lack of electricity and what was forecasted as a lengthy restoration period, I decided that I would return home as I was informed that it could be days before returning to work. I am originally from the east coast, and I decided that, due to a below-freezing temperatures inside my place of residence, I would venture back to St. John’s, until electricity was restored and I could return to Marystown and resume work.

Saturday evening at approximately 5 p.m., I heard of the delayed power restoration that would not happen until tentatively Wednesday or Thursday of the following week. At this time I decided I would return home. I packed my car. The weather was cold, the wind-chill reading at -26 degrees Celcius, the snow had stopped and the roads in Marystown were clear and maintained. I drove through the dark, power-less town and ventured towards Mooring Cove where the road was blocked by a Department of Transportation and Works pickup truck.

I pulled off the road, and a government employee exited his truck and approached my car. I asked if the highway, Route 210, was open. He responded with, “Yes, we are just waiting on an ambulance, which is headed this way. Where are you headed?”

I proceeded to tell the man that I was en route to St. John’s. He replied that two flyers had just headed north, but the roads were cleared and there should be no issue with reaching my destination if I took my time. He, at this time, moved his pickup and proceeded to allow me access to the Burin Peninsula Highway.

I carried on with my trip home. I was driving at approximately 60-70 km/hr due to the conditions of the road since the storm. I made it through Red Harbour and consecutive communities without difficulty. There was no snow falling at this time, and though the roads were snow-covered in sections, I had nothing impeding me from continuing my commute.

I noticed that besides the southbound ambulance that I met around Parker’s Cove, there were no other vehicles on the road. I thought this was strange, as I was advised that the roads were cleared and passable. By the time I reached the exit to St. Bernard’s-Bay L’Argent, I quickly ran into whiteout conditions and extreme drifting. I slowed my car down considerably, as visibility had quickly diminished within seconds. It was only minutes later that I found myself in what I consider to this day the most terrifying situation that I have ever been subject to in my 26 years. It went from driving on a cleared road to literally being buried.

I was 11 kilometers north of the St. Bernard’s-Bay L'argent exit, and my car could neither reverse, nor move forward. It was dark, the snow was covering the front of my car, my door could not open due to the snow that had me trapped in my car, and I was in the middle of the Burin Peninsula Highway on a freezing, cold Saturday night.  

Initially, the situation that I had now found myself in seemed surreal, ironically like something out of a movie. It took me a couple minutes to realize that I was trapped and that my best efforts were completely useless in my attempts to move in any way. I couldn’t move forward, I couldn’t move backward, I couldn’t open my door, I couldn’t see to my left, I couldn’t see ahead of me.

I immediately looked at my partially charged cellphone that read so blatantly ‘no service’.

I felt my heart pounding faster and faster, and all I could think was that there were two flyers somewhere on the road with me stuck in the middle of it.

I started to hold my phone up in any direction to see if I could obtain any service. I found one bar of intermittent cell coverage in my backseat in the top right hand corner. I dialed 911, a number I have never dialed myself, yet I am the recipient of on a regular basis in my career as a paramedic. On the other end, an RCMP representative took my call. I explained my situation and did what I have told so many to do. I tried to stay calm. The dispatcher, after being advised of my predicament, asked abruptly, “Why are you on the road? It has been closed down since this afternoon! No one is to be on Route 210 tonight.”

I stated that a worker with Department of Highways himself granted me access. She told me this was impossible, as no one was to be on the road. I told her again my biggest fear was that if these flyers were southbound they would not see me, as I was buried in the middle of a massive drift. She then told me to hold the line while she tried to transfer me to the Department of Highways to see if there was anything they could do. There was no answer. I called 911 again, and at this time, I was told that there was nothing they could do, that they would send someone in the morning, that I would receive help by noon on Sunday.

Panic set in. I said, “Noon tomorrow?! You just as well bring a body bag, its -26 degrees Celcius with the wind chill and the temperature is dropping!” I was answered with, “There is nothing else we can do. Even emergency services with the Department of Highways are off the road for the night.”

In my profession, we are trained to hide our emotions during some of the most stressful and heartbreaking moments you can imagine. We are trained to be brave, to help in any way we can, to do no harm, to walk into people’s lives on their worst days and provide assistance in any way possible. This can vary from initiating CPR in attempts to save a life, to crawling into wrecked vehicles on the highway and rescuing people out of them, to giving assistance to the elderly. Our calls are vast in nature, and we are to respond equally in our demeanor and reactions to provide the care that we are called to give.

Yet, with several years as a paramedic under my belt, when I heard the chilling words of “noon tomorrow,” my heart broke and the tears started, as I realized that anything could happen between then and noon on Sunday. I called home to my parents, a call I did not want to make. My mother answered and could instantly tell something was wrong. I asked to speak to my father, and she demanded to know what was going on. I remained calm as I told her, and she began to cry. She got my father who immediately said he was leaving St. John’s to come find me. I told him it was pointless, as the RCMP told me that the road was blocked now on both ends and there was no way to get access to me.

He advised me to keep calm, leave my four-way flashers on and should I see someone approaching, flash my lights in hopes that they might see me. He also told me to keep my window down a crack, as carbon monoxide poisoning could be an issue as snow may have clogged my exhaust. I attempted to get out through my door to brush off my rear hazard lights and see if I could clear my exhaust pipe. The winds were extremely high, and my only access to getting out of my car was my passenger side window, which I managed to crawl out of and dig my door open. I quickly got back into my car as the elements were harsh, and I did not want to get chilled so prematurely in the night, as I was expecting to be there for an extended time.

I sat there, and I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I prayed. I prayed that someway I would be rescued, or that I at least would survive the night.

It was terrifying to think that the winds were only getting stronger and my car was continuing to only accumulate more snow. How would the plows see me in the morning? They’re going to need to be driving fast to get through these drifts. Will I be killed by one of them if I live through the night? Will I freeze overnight? What was the man thinking that let me on this highway tonight? Why are there no snow fences in place on such a barren frequently used highway? What would happen if an ambulance needed to get through here tonight? Would they clear the road for them? Is that life more important than mine? What if I was an elderly person? What if I had a small child with me? What if I didn’t have that one bar of cell reception? Why don’t they see it important to come find me?

All these questions raced through my mind as I sat there for what seemed like forever. I called a friend in Terrenceville. I called a fellow medic, begging them to come find me or find a way to get me. All efforts were appearing void. It seemed that this would be where I would spend the night, and I was already so cold. A while later I received a call from the RCMP stating that my father had called them and someone would attempt to come find me, but no guarantees were being made that they would succeed.

At approximately 11 p.m., I saw the flashing red and blue lights reflecting through my rear windshield. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. With the two officers help, I packed my belongings in the back of the RCMP cruiser and headed back to Marystown. I will be forever thankful that these officers risked their own lives and ventured out on that frigid night to find me. I am alive, and I am thankful. Yet living through such an ordeal, I can’t help but feel responsible to somehow seek answers as to why this happened, and better yet, make sure it never happens to anyone again. Improvements need to be made to this road. Safety is vital here. Crews need to be responsible for maintaining the roads 24-hours-a-day. When a storm is not ongoing, it is simply unacceptable for the roads not to be maintained. What will it take for this to improve? A reoccurrence? A death? Multiple deaths?

I hope someone reads this that has the power to make a decision to better these roads, to make sure these roads are maintained at all hours. To make sure that no one else is ever found in a situation similar to mine because they might not react how I did. They might panic, they might venture out in the snow and attempt to walk when the person on the other end says, “We will have help to you by noon tomorrow.” Then our best endeavours are too late. It could have been too late for me. But, thankfully, I have two parents who cared and didn’t stop until someone said they would come look for me, a God that heard my prayers, a background and training that kept me level headed and thinking clearly, and, thankfully, two RCMP officers that acted as my hero’s that night. 

I seek answers as to why I was allowed on the Burin Peninsula Highway on Jan. 4, 2014, but better yet, I beg for drastic measures to be taken, that this never happens to anyone again, that better snow clearing protocols be established immediately.

The Burin Peninsula Highway has a terrible reputation for being dangerous this time of year. You would think that at least these treacherous roads that have earned this reputation, at the bare minimum, be cleared. Should improvements result from this, then what I refer to as the most terrifying night of my life would not be in vain, but may at least spare others of the fear and anxiety that I was caused.

Better yet, it may save a life.

Melissa Penney,

Marystown

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