em>Updated 2/2/11 8:00 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — Lake Shore Drive was a disaster area overnight, as motorists found themselves stranded for up to 12 hours and ended up in the hospital.
As CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports, many motorists were just trying to get home, but the blizzard made that impossible.
Initially, Lake Shore Drive was moving smoothly as the evening rush began, but conditions began to deteriorate following several accidents. There were three accidents between 7:15 and 7:45 p.m., one of them involving a CTA bus. Shortly afterward, there were two more accidents just south of North Avenue.
The accidents caused cars and buses to back up, and as the snow piled up, vehicles became immobilized and off-ramps became impassable. Lake Shore Drive was closed at 7:58 p.m., and fire and police personnel worked to move as many cars as possible off the highway and remove people who could not get out on their own.
Newsradio 780 was flooded with calls from stranded motorists who said they had been stuck on Lake Shore Drive for over seven hours and saw people abandoning their cars.
Newsradio 780’s Lisa Fielding reports Sue Baker left her Hyde Park office around 5 p.m. and nearly seven hours later, she remained in the same spot, “We haven’t moved. It’s kinda scary. There are snow drifts on our cars now.”
Mayor’s chief of staff Raymond Orozco said first responders tried to get to stranded motorists as quickly as possible, but winds of 60 to 70 mph and snow falling at a rate of 1 to 2 inches per hour made that extremely difficult.
The city shut down Lake Shore Drive, for the first time since the Blizzard of 1999.
Before the city shut down the Drive, traffic had been crawling; it took upwards of an hour to travel only a mile. Many cars were without a full tank of gas, and ended up running out.
Evanston attorney Craig Roeder says he got on Lake Shore Drive at 6 p.m. and headed north. He says he crept and crawled until just south of Fullerton Parkway, when traffic ground to a halt around 9:30 pm.
And there he sat, in whiteout conditions for six hours, until 3:20 a.m. when WBBM Newsradio 780’s David Roe was interviewing him on the phone.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s David Roe reports
“There are some emergency people now coming with flashlights between the cars,” Roeder said. “What we had been hearing is that they were taking people out into fire trucks because the buses couldn’t get through, so it looks like this could be our rescue here.”
Jim Glonke was stranded near North Avenue for 11 hours. He told CBS 2 he left his office in Chinatown in the late afternoon Tuesday, and it was backed up. He arrived at North Avenue around 7 p.m., and traffic stopped completely for an hour or two. Glonke was told a jackknifed bus was to blame.
Many cars ran out of gas, and were abandoned, as Glonke sat and exchanged text messages with his girlfriend, sister and mother.
“The next thing you know, it’s 4:15 in the morning, and I was one of the last cars to come off who actually had a few fumes left in his tank to get to the gas station,” Glonke said.
Another driver remained stranded on Lake Shore Drive at 5 a.m., and said he had been all but abandoned.
“We’re at North Avenue right now. It’s a standstill. They told us about an hour and a half ago that we’d be off the exit. There’s a car that ran out of gas, and that was about 1 o’clock and we’ve been sitting here ever since,” he said. “Nobody’s come by. Nobody’s told us anything.”
A CTA bus driver told CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole he had been stranded on Lake Shore Drive since 5:40 p.m. Tuesday. That was at 5:15 a.m. Wednesday.
The city ended up being sharply criticized for its response to the emergency on the Drive. On the one hand, they wanted to get people off the roadway, but on the other hand, they wanted them to remain in their cars so plows could attack the snow buildup.
The Fire Department set up a mobile command center along North Lake Shore Drive, and came to each vehicle to check on people with water and granola bars. Windshield wipers were left up for cars that were empty.
As for those who were rescued, many were taken to St. Joseph Hospital for cold exposure. Others were taken to warming centers or placed on warming buses.
St. Joseph Hospital reported that 185 people had been brought in from Lake Shore Drive. Most were cold, and merely needed dry socks, blankets, slippers and towels.
About 137 hospital employees are lodging at the medical facility.
Orozco said all the people who wanted to leave their cars were off the Drive by around 7 a.m. The plan is to reopen Lake Shore Drive when they believe it’s safe to do so, but it’s not known when that will be.
“We know that hundreds do people were very inconvenienced, and we’re sorry about that,” Orozco said.
Orozco emphasized that the city was monitoring Lake Shore Drive from the beginning and responded as swiftly as possible.
“In 31 years with the city, I haven’t experienced anything like we did last night with Lake Shore Drive,” Orozco said.