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Students handle being stranded 20 hours

Posted 1/26/16 (Tue)

By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer

Two buses filled with over 80 North Dakota students and chaperones were trapped in a winter storm that blanketed the East Coast with upward of 30 inches of snow for nearly 20 hours on a Pennsylvania interstate, before they were dug out by the Pennsylvania National Guard this past weekend on their way back home.
The group included students from Bishop Ryan High School in Minot, St. Mary’s in Bismarck, Trinity Christian in Dickinson, and Watford City High School. They included Clare Campbell, Rebecca Campbell, Devin Schmitz, Ethan Lyon, Olivia Gronos, and Zonna Lyon. The students traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the March for Life that took place on Friday, Jan. 22.
“We went to Washington, D.C., to the March for Life and our cross country trek has been an amazing experience,” said Sarah Billing, chaperone with the Watford City students. “Spending 20 hours stuck on the Pennsylvania turnpike was not in the plan, but the kids took it all in stride and made the best of it.”
En route to Pittsburg, Pa., Friday night following the march, the charter buses got stuck behind an accident that had taken place about three miles ahead of them. As they waited, the snow continued to fall and pile up. The group had made it 159 miles outside of Washington, D.C.
“There was a concrete barrier so no one could really turn around and get off the turnpike,” said one of the students. “There was no good way to turn around and it was pretty packed between all the vehicles. We ended up being stuck for almost 20 hours  total by the time the National Guard came to help.”
According to Billing and Father Jadyn Nelson of Bishop Ryan High School, the buses were trapped on Interstate 76 overnight by accumulating snow. But the charter buses had refueled shortly before getting stuck on the turnpike, and they had plenty of gas to idle for several days.
When asked what they did to pass the time, several students shouted out an assortment of responses.
“A lot of sleeping for one!” said one boy. “Some of us slept better than others and some of the students stretched out in the aisles, while others slept in their seats. We didn’t all have our own seats to ourselves, but we made due.”
“We played some games,” said another student. “We prayed, worked on homework, and did some singing.”
“The past 18 hours or so were actually kind of fun for me,” added another student. “Just talking to my friends, singing, praying, stuff like that.”
Thankfully, the charter buses, one with about 40 students and chaperones and the other with 43, was able to idle for the duration of the time spent stranded on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. So the group had heat, lights, and working bathrooms.
“We had plenty of gas, food, and bathrooms,” said Nelson. “We had wall-out beds if we really needed them and working lights. Everything was functioning well. It really wasn’t too rough.”
When asked if the students or chaperones were worried or nervous during their 20-hour ordeal, the collective answer was no. They felt pretty safe most of the time, and almost seemed to enjoy the time spent face-to-face with each other. Although some of the parents back home were concerned, the students helped to put those worries at ease, especially after the National Guard showed up to dig the vehicles out of their snow-packed, interstate dwellings.
“People were having great conversations,” stated Nelson. “We were practicing that lost art of face-to-face conversation and interaction with the high school students, playing games, and singing songs. It’s actually been quite enjoyable all things considered.”
“We started seeing a lot of emergency workers and front loaders moving snow,” said one student. “Then the National Guard showed up. One cool thing is that several students on our bus were able to help push out about 20 cars that were stuck around us.”
Once the charter buses got moving again, they took the next exit to Summerset, which is where they booked a handful of hotel rooms. There, they ate, stretched their legs, showered, and a got a good night’s rest before making the 24-hour drive back home to North Dakota the next morning.    
“This was the first group from Watford City to make this trip and we so appreciate the entire community that has been so supportive with all their texts, calls, and prayers,” stated Billing. “We would especially like to thank Father Brian Gross, the Epiphany parishioners, Nick Emmel, St. Mary’s Central High School, and our families. The March was such an amazing trip that the kids would do it all over again, even if they knew that they would have a repeat of the crazy storm and being stuck. Thanks much from The Epiphany Pilgrims.”
“This was my sixth time making the trip,” added Nelson. “And I’ve never experienced anything like this. The Watford City students were so respectful and joyful during this whole ordeal. It was a great pleasure to be with them on this trip. They made our lives so much better. They were so positive and are great influences to the people around them.”