Hundreds of Nebraskans were among those stuck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, caught in the winter storm that has slammed the East Coast.
The travelers — all safe — are young people and their chaperones who attended Friday’s March for Life in Washington, D.C. They have been stuck since Friday evening on Interstate 76 about two hours east of Pittsburgh, between Bedford and Somerset.
The stranded include:
— Six of seven buses that the Archdiocese of Omaha sent to the march: about 316 people
— One of three buses sent from the Lincoln Diocese: about 55 people
— Two buses from the Newman Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus: about 80 people.
Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese, said Saturday that the Omaha students, along with a busload of Minnesota students, created a makeshift chapel in the snow — even crafting a cross from tree branches — and celebrated Mass on Saturday morning.
“That’s the spirit of these young people,” McNeil said. They were disappointed that their trip was cut short but are making the most of things, he said.
Archbishop George Lucas called and prayed with the pilgrims on speaker phone. He told them he was proud of their missionary and gospel spirit. His talk raised their spirits, McNeil said.
The buses were equipped with plenty of food and water, and “the mood is prayerful and patient,” according to McNeil.
The stranded Omaha group is mostly young people along with chaperones, including a number of priests, he said. One busload of 54 people, from Norfolk, made it through before the roadway was shut down, he said.
In all, 500 cars, buses and trucks remained stranded Saturday afternoon, Pennsylvannia Gov. Tom Wolf said during a press conference. The Turnpike Authority had no immediate reports of injuries.
The stuck vehicles were in three clusters over a 23-mile stretch of the turnpike, officials said.
Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said the initial problem Friday night appeared to involve one or more tractor-trailers 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.
Ricardo Izquierdo, a chaperone from St. Albert’s Catholic School in Council Bluffs, said Saturday that it had been snowing non-stop since 2 p.m. Friday.
The students were meeting up with other March for Life participants from South Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota. Within a half-mile stretch, Izquierdo said he counted about 2,100 students who participated in the march.
He said the students started using their “Pro-Life” signs as sleds.
Izquierdo, a theology teacher at St. Albert’s, said if the roads are not cleared, the buses could be stuck on the road another night or the buses would head back East for food and shelter.
He 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 as well as other personnel with help from the National Guard, have gone vehicle by vehicle, tapping on windows and checking the well-being of those inside.
Joe Arkfeld, a senior at Skutt High School in Omaha, said he and his fellow stranded students slept Friday night and went outside Saturday to get their “blood flowing.”
He said being stranded was stressful at first, but everyone has made the best of it.
“This trip was for the babies,” he said. “We didn’t come here on vacation but on a pilgrimage.”
Christine Quist, a parent chaperone on the stuck Lincoln Diocese bus, said Saturday late morning that morale was very high and that there has been a lot of music – including karaoke – and praying. She said the bus drivers, priests and chaperones, and students have been “awesome.” The bus has about 55 people on board.
She said the Lincoln contingent includes students from Hastings, Wahoo, Nebraska City, McCook, York and Lincoln. Two buses made it through but one caught in the traffic snarl, starting about 6 p.m.
The National Guard was on the scene late morning, Quist said. She said they checked on their busload and provided water.
She said they were stopped about three miles away from the original snarl, but there was a lot of work to be done to clear roads and cars before travel could resume.
Facebook updates along with email blasts to parents and texts from students were keeping the travelers connected with loved ones in Nebraska.
One of the seminarians on one of the Omaha Archdiocese buses, Scott Watts, got out of the bus Saturday morning and started playing his trumpet on the side of the road.
“They’re having fun with it,” McNeil said.
About 80 students from the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were among the stranded. Emma Rashilla, a junior from Lincoln, 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 Catch Phrase and card games, praying and sleeping. She said even with the long trip back, going to the March for Life in D.C. was worth it.
Most of the Nebraskans started for home about 2:30 p.m. Friday; 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.”
According to Marilyn Synek, a University of Nebraska-Kearney student on one of the Lincoln Diocese buses, crews are digging out stranded cars in front of the Lincoln buses. Once they are able to free the Lincoln buses, they are hoping to turn back east to get food and stay overnight before resuming their trip Sunday morning.