We don’t get much snow in Santa Barbara, California. We get earthquakes and forest fires and the possibility of tsunamis. But if we want real snow, skiable sit in front of the fire snow, it means packing a suitcase and going to it. So I was most surprised to awaken one morning in New York City, March 12, 1993 to be exact, and find myself in midst of what has been called the Storm of the 20th century.
And what was I doing there? I was spending, we thought, a short stay in the big city on our way to St. Petersburg, Russia. From the moment in 1991 when Leningrad became St. Petersburg again I wished to go to the city of Anna Karenina dashing through the snow in a troika. There also was a practical reason in addition to the literary one, I had a very old yellow Chinese empress robe that had a most unusual symbol on it (another blog of course) that no one could give me much information on and since I knew the great Hermitage Museum had major Chinese textiles from tombs discovered by Sir Marc Aurel Stein I wanted to take photographs of my robe and consult with the curators in that department of the Hermitage.
Tourist travel wasn’t big in Russia at that time but I discovered the Finnish airlines had a very special price that included airfare, the Grand Hotel, then the very best hotel in the city, and three meals a day (all food and water brought in from Helsinki daily) and a car, driver and guide for one week. I booked! Then my friend Mrs. Gordon Douglas, a great traveler, decided to go with me.
So that is why Mary Douglas and I awakened in our rooms in the Colony Club to a silent city on March 12th. Looking out the windows everything was white, total silence, no car tracks or foot prints in the snow. It was a lot of snow! Knowing we were pretty well stranded at the Colony, where there were no meals served that day, we called our friends Rudolph and Rafaella Schirmer who lived directly across the street at 555 Park Avenue hoping they were well stocked and we’d possibly get invited for dinner.
Rudolph always the man of action announced, “My Knickerbocker Club is very close. I’ve phoned and they are serving full breakfast. We’ll meet you on the corner in half an hour. Luckily we had warm clothes for my hopes of an Anna Karenina scene in St. Petersburg so off the four of us went making the first footprints up well above our ankles down 62nd Street, Rafaella carrying a bright red umbrella, the only color in a totally silent white scene. So we didn’t starve and when the airports opened we were off to St. Petersburg, but this blog is about storms…
It was August 14, 2003 and my United flight was due to land at JFK but we weren’t landing. In fact being a fairly seasoned flyer it seemed to me we were all over the place, probably the ocean because there was not a light to be seen and we should have been seeing lots of lights by then. Finally the Captain spoke. “Ladies and Gentlemen we are flying above a giant power outage all along the east coast. We can’t get into Boston, or Philadelphia or anywhere in between. The airports are all closed however Kennedy is making special arrangements for three planes to come in, one from Germany, one from London and us for reasons of fuel getting short. So put on your seat belts and we’re going in!”
And land we did, third in line, on a runway lit with dozens of cars and trucks and anything with headlights that could shine on the runway! Then there was the problem of getting us off the plane. Those fancy steps for the big planes need electricity to work it seemed so they brought something used for cargo that was mighty tricky to maneuver! Our hand luggage was passed down a line of airport personnel lining one side of our sort of slide with small areas raised every so often to break a total slide. I didn’t take great note of its construction as I was trying to make it to the bottom in a standing position. Once on the ground we saw far in the distance several dim lights where we were told we’d find our luggage eventually. However it was pitch dark getting from the plane we’d just left to those lights. Never have I been so happy I always carry a small powerful flashlight in my purse! And so were about 300 other people. Playing the Pied Piper with my little flashlight I got everyone to that luggage area safely.
Obviously we’d be spending the hot humid night on the sidewalk opposite the main airport buildings that were closed down. Exiting the building where our luggage finally appeared I discovered two planeloads of people who landed just ahead of us sitting on luggage in a line along a wall under an overhead roof. Since I also always carry a supply of power bars, almonds and peanut butter in my carryon I knew what late supper would be. I’d just settled in, planning to sleep on my soft big duffle bag and use the carryon as my pillow, when I heard a man’s voice calling to me over the low wall. “Where ‘ya going?” “Into Manhattan,” I replied. This was really no time to worry about rapists! “How many bags ‘ya got?” “This big one and the carryon?” “Where in Manhattan?” “Parker Meridien,” I answered not sure where it was but I’d been guaranteed they had a big swimming pool. “Okay I’ll take ya, hand me over your bags and you walk up ahead there’s a break in the wall and my black town car is there.”
There are times in life where you don’t question what is happening and this was one! Turned out he wasn’t a rapist or a serial murderer, but was a sharp limo driver who knew back roads to get thru to the airport. I finally asked “how much?” not that I cared at that point. “Sixty bucks!” he called back as he went over to the wall to choose his other passengers. He could have named any price and we’d all have paid it. We never did figure out how he chose us out of the at least 900 people lined up there. My fellow lucky ones were a German business man, a young man whose wife was due to give birth momentarily whom we last saw running up Third Avenue because the driver couldn’t get any closer to his destination. As he took off dragging a small bag behind him he called back to us “I ran a lot further than this on 9/11 to get home to my family!” The other passengers were a very nice lady and her adorable 4 year old daughter Francis (who made the trip in my lap as her mother’s was filled with their carryons). They had been on a trip to London to meet some of the mother’s English relatives.
Arriving at the Parker Meridien I was met by the sight of a bunch of very handsome young grounded DHL pilots sitting outside on the hot night drinking beer, trying to use cell phones that didn’t work and having a fine time. Inside there was a dimly lit reception desk and a huge heavily laden buffet table. Since the refrigeration was off the management was using all the food they had to feed the guests free. I was informed one generator was working enough to take guests on one trip up and hopefully one down in the morning. But only one. And there was no air conditioning in the rooms.
What did I do? I checked in, got a luggage receipt, found myself one of those big luggage carts with the brass tubes that go up into an elaborate area to hang clothes on hangers, got a plate of food that couldn’t possibly have spoiled, no oysters or clams etc, got a bottle of beer and went out into the humid night to join the DHL crowd. Heard some really good new jokes that night too!
So Irene, I may be sitting comfortably poolside at my Santa Barbara condo under a big umbrella on a lovely August day writing this on my iPhone, however Irene I’ve been there done that as the kids say! And done it with great good fortune and style!!! But I wouldn’t want to push my good luck too far by taking you on…
Kathleen Fetner, Technical Advisor and Friend