At BWI, grounded jets leave fliers frustrated

Travelers try to salvage trips, find place to sleep to avoid night in airport

The Snowstorm Of 2003

February 17, 2003|By Marcia Myers and Larry Williams | Marcia Myers and Larry Williams,SUN STAFF

Long rows of jets sat idle by Baltimore-Washington International Airport's loading piers yesterday afternoon as giant yellow plows and scoops darted back and forth like ungainly insects, building mountains of snow beside the taxiways.

Inside the terminal, the pace was less frantic.

Banks of TV screens listed hundreds of flights CANCELED as airline service personnel leaned on counters and told war stories about how they fought their way to work.

Occasionally, a customer appeared, and they went back to work, rescheduling flights and seeking hotel rooms for frustrated travelers trying to salvage trips that threatened a night on airport benches.

In the Burger King and an adjacent public lounge, disheartened travelers stared glumly out the giant glass window walls at the swirling snow.

"I'm a dumb idiot," said Dr. John Keller, a pathologist at Montgomery General Hospital in Olney, as he described the odyssey that brought him from Olney to BWI.

The plan was to run a friend, Susan Jorgenson, up to the airport to catch a flight back to Boston. Route 108 was the fastest way, Keller decided.

But the quick run turned into potential disaster when his car ran into a snow bank halfway up a hill.

Keller and his friend were picked up by a group of Guatemalans in a pickup truck who offered them a lift to nearby Clarksville in the truck's frigid open flatbed.

Minutes later they found themselves in a Clarksville Mobil station with no way to retrieve their abandoned car. The tow companies he called were booked.

Then, when all seemed lost, Keller said, "the world's largest tow truck" turned into the station parking lot. It was from Automotive Support Towing and Recovery, and it was available.

A little more than an hour later and $235 poorer, Keller and Jorgenson arrived at BWI only to confirm what they had come to suspect: Jorgenson's flight was going nowhere.

"The whole thing was stupid," said Keller with a smile as he headed toward the BWI Amtrak station with Jorgenson.

The schedule screens in the crowded Amtrak station all showed ON TIME yesterday afternoon, with the exception of two canceled trips to Newport News, Va. Passengers described the trains as standing room only.

Like `Dr. Zhivago'

Riding the Acela Express from New York felt like something out of Dr. Zhivago, a film that featured a train trip across the snowy Russian steppe, said Hank Vaccaro of Los Alamos, N.M.

The speeding Acela threw an impressive arch of snow up and away from the track. "It was one of those Omar Sharif moments," said Vaccaro, adding that the train left and arrived on time.

"The only scare was, for a while, they ran out of coffee," he said. "But they got that working again."

But like many others at BWI, Vaccaro was still far from home. He hoped to link with his daughter in Washington and find a way home.

There was plenty of coffee and scones but few customers at the BWI Starbucks.

One of them, Calvin Cheung walked out hauling two oversize suitcases on wheels and looking chagrined. His destination, Hawaii, seemed a far-off dream.

Cheung, 27, had just finished his tour in the Marine Corps and was heading home to Honolulu. Looking at his suitcases he tried to keep his predicament in perspective. "At least it's not on my back, and it's not uphill," he said.

Spending the night

Retired engineer Elliott Rosenberg and his wife, Evlyn, from Randallstown were perched in the airport observation deck, preparing to spend the night and hoping to catch a flight to San Diego today.

"There's no way we're going to get back to Randallstown," Evlyn said.

The couple had headed out at 5 a.m. on a bargain vacation that they hope will feature a stay in a Southern California seniors hostel.

When they might get there was anybody's guess.

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