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Aberdeen pitches in to rescue stranded travellersFree Access

Aberdeen emergency responders help stranded motorists on Highway 41 during the blizzard on January 31 (Brenda Gabel Facebook photo)

For four hours on Monday night, January 31, Brenda Gabel and her husband were  stranded in their vehicle on Highway 41 near Aberdeen.

The darkness, blinding snow and cold temperatures combined to make a serious situation. Their vehicle was one of many unable to move. Not only was visibility down to zero, traffic was also backed up because of a collision on the highway earlier in the day.

Then, out of the blackness, the red lights of a fire engine carrying Aberdeen Firefighters appeared. The emergency responders formed the stranded vehicles into a convoy and led them, at a snail’s pace, back into Aberdeen.

“A huge thank you to the Aberdeen Fire Department and emergency personnel for keeping us safe and leading a convoy to the town hall in Aberdeen,” wrote Brenda Gabel in a Town of Aberdeen facebook post the morning after the storm. “We were greeted with kind hospitality – hot coffee, tea, hot chocolate, food, beds and homemade quilts. Words cannot express our heartfelt appreciation. Thank you, everyone involved. Your professionalism on site and warm thoughtful details at the hall will always be remembered.”

Aberdeen Mayor Ryan White said when the blizzard hit, it didn’t take long for things to go from bad to worse. He and other members of the Aberdeen Fire Department had responded to a call of a collision on Highway 41 north of town at about 4:30 p.m. January 31. When they arrived on scene, there was already a string of vehicles on the highway unable to move in either direction.

“We had a lot of people out there for a quite a while,” said White, who is also an officer in the Saskatoon Police Service. “It was dangerous. You’d walk 25 yards from the road and you might not make it back.

“Basically, tow trucks were not coming out because of safety concerns, so we had to make a decision. Our fire chief, Adrien Hamoline, made it out to his farm, which is not far from the accident scene, and got a front-end loader. He basically plowed us a road, and the fire trucks, with their bright flashing lights, led the convoy back to Aberdeen.”

White phoned Dolores Dyck, a member of the Aberdeen Community Hall board, and asked her to open up the hall as a shelter for the travellers. Dyck and her neighbour, Wilma Marrisen, quickly got the doors open and put on a pot of coffee. Before long, people in the community were bringing in food, blankets, cots, air mattresses, toiletries and other necessities for those in need.

A warm bed with homemade quilts greeted cold travellers at the Aberdeen Community Hall (Brenda Gabel Facebook photo)

“Ryan phoned me because I have the keys to the hall,” said Dyck. “He asked me if I would run down and open the hall because there were stranded people. I said definitely. From there we posted it on facebook, and just like that, people brought all kinds of stuff down.

“It was a great feeling to be able to help. This is a terrific community that really pulls together when things get rough.”

The facebook post advised people to remain in their vehicle and call 911. While waiting, they were advised to check their exhaust tailpipe to ensure it wasn’t plugged with ice or snow, which could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Dyck said one woman who arrived at the hall had become stranded on the highway on her way back home from Saskatoon after chemotherapy treatment.

“They were desperately trying to get home when the storm caught them,” said Dyck. “They were so glad to get to the hall where there was an air mattress and blankets so she could lie down and have a rest. She said it was a god-send to her.”

While Dyck and Marrisen left the hall to return home about 11:30 p.m., they left their phone numbers so that if the travellers needed anything, they could just call.

Dyck said about 16 people stayed overnight at the hall.

But there were dozens of others who were also rescued by volunteer emergency personnel.

“It was a busy night,” confirmed White. “I sure appreciated Dolores and Wilma’s efforts. They sprung into action, and when it hit facebook, the community responded instantly.

“It was one of the few times I’ve really enjoyed social media. Normally I’m not a big fan of facebook, but this time it really worked for us. We were able to give people a warm, safe place for the night.”

White said firefighters used a side-by-side with a heated cab to rescue travellers in rural areas.

“The side-by-side has tracks, so it’s really good in snow,” said White. “Our experience in last year’s snowstorm convinced us that we needed tracks instead of wheels on the side-by-side. It was expensive, but it proved its worth.”

He said several people stranded on Ferry Road between Aberdeen and Warman were picked up by firefighters in the side-by-side and taken to their homes.