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ATLANTA (AP) — Helicopters took to the skies Wednesday to search for stranded drivers while authorities on the ground worked to deliver food, water and gas — or a ride home — to people who were stuck on highways after a winter storm walloped the Deep South.
Students spent the night on buses or at schools, commuters abandoned their cars or idled in them all night and the highways turned into parking lots when the roads iced over.
It wasn’t clear exactly how many people were still stranded on the roads a day after the storm paralyzed the region. And the timing of when things would clear and when the highways would thaw was also uncertain because temperatures were not expected to be above freezing.
“We literally would go 5 feet and sit for two hours,” said Jessica Troy, who along with a co-worker spent more than 16 hours in car before finally getting home late Wednesday morning.
Their total trip was about 12 miles.
“I slept for an hour and it was not comfortable,” Troy said. “Most people sat the entire night with no food, no water, no bathroom. We saw people who had children. It was a dire situation.”
The rare snowstorm deposited mere inches of snow in Georgia and Alabama, but there were more than 1,000 fender-benders. At least six people died in traffic accidents, including five in Alabama, and four people were killed early Tuesday in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a faulty space heater.
Elsewhere in the South, Virginia’s coast had up to 10 inches of snow, North Carolina had up to inches on parts of the Outer Banks, South Carolina had about 4 inches and highways were shut down in Louisiana.
In Atlanta and Birmingham, interstates were clogged by jackknifed 18-wheelers. Some commuters pleaded for help via cellphones while still holed up in their cars, while others trudged miles home, abandoning their vehicles outright.
Linda Moore spent 12 hours stuck in her car on Interstate 65 south of Birmingham before a firefighter used a ladder to help her cross the median wall and a shuttle bus took her to a hotel where about 20 other stranded motorists spent the night in a conference room.
“I boohooed a lot,” she said. “It was traumatic. I’m just glad I didn’t have to stay on that Interstate all night, but there are still people out there.”
Some employers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield in Alabama had hundreds of people sleeping in offices overnight. Workers watched movies on their laptops, and office cafeterias gave away food.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s office said rescuers and medics in helicopters were flying over Jefferson and Shelby counties conducting search and rescue missions.