Plow crews stop only for coffee, catnaps

Public works drivers in Baltimore County share dorms, long hours

The Snowstorm Of 2003

February 19, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Phil Pietrolungo wouldn't mind a single 24-hour shift right about now.

Fueled by Pepsi and Marlboro Mediums, the Baltimore County public works driver has been plowing snow since Friday night. He's gotten about eight hours' sleep in that time, most of it in the front seat of his truck. And he probably won't get to his house in Parkville until tomorrow at the earliest.

For a plow operator during the worst area snowstorm in 81 years, life has become a blur of white mounds, gray slush and caffeine jolts.

Home for Pietrolungo and his co-workers these days is a concrete bunker in a county public works complex off Bosley Avenue in Towson, where a storage area is filled with cots and sleeping bags, and 27 drivers share a kitchen and two showers with a 10-gallon water heater.

There are similar makeshift dorms at the county's 10 other public works shops and at other highway salt and fueling stations in the region.

"A lot of us just sleep in our trucks," Pietrolungo said. "At first you aren't tired. It's all adrenaline. It's kind of fun as the snow is falling."

But by yesterday, the novelty was wearing off and convenience store coffee and potato chips had long ago lost their appeal.

"You get kind of grouchy in the 18th or 19th hour," said Butch Pfarr, the public works district supervisor for Towson-Cockeysville.

Many people wrongly believe that public works employees - including the 300 in Baltimore County, where 2,610 miles of roads had to be cleared - have been working in shifts. Actually, they've been on the clock since the first snowflakes appeared Friday night.

"We're here for the duration," said Pfarr who tells crews: "You might as well pack your bags."

Pfarr did. He brought a few changes of clothes, some snacks and figured he wouldn't see his wife in Hydes for about a week. Pietrolungo brought a toothbrush, a few other toiletries and his pillow - not that anyone has been getting much sleep.

"You catch a few hours when you can," Pfarr said. "Even a 20-minute nap does wonders."

About a dozen employees brought cots and sleeping bags from home, knowing they wouldn't have a mattress for a while. Even the dispatcher sleeps next to her desk in the front office.

The Towson crew did get a home-cooked meal on Sunday, courtesy of St. Joseph's Church on Belair Road in Fullerton, which had to cancel a chicken dinner because of the snow. As a result, Pfarr was able to buy half-chickens and all the fixings for $2 each. The crew cooked about 60 in their kitchenette and were still eating the leftovers yesterday in soup.

"You can only live on hot dogs from 7-Eleven and Royal Farms for so long," Pfarr said.

Some drivers have been offered sandwiches and sodas by people along their routes.

"It's nice," said Pietrolungo, who says most people understand that he isn't trying to sabotage their shoveling efforts when he plows past their freshly cleared driveways.

"Everyone's doing the best they can to get the roads open," he said.

And workers such as Pietrolungo are as anxious as anyone to get the job done.

"I can't wait to lay down in a real bed and go to sleep," he said.

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