While many were holed up inside during a blizzard warning that covered much of Eastern Iowa Sunday night, a group of snowmobilers braved the cold temperatures and bitter winds to help with rescue efforts across Jones County.
Jones County Sheriff Greg Graver said calls for assistance began coming into the Jones County Sheriff's office around 7 p.m. and a multi-agency effort among the Jones County Snow Chasers snowmobiling club and the Anamosa, Martelle, Monticello and Onslow fire departments was necessary to reach the unusual number of stranded motorists.
Graver estimated the effort extracted about 25 different vehicles. Many of those vehicles had multiple passengers, and some had young children, he said.
"As far as the number of people transported, it has been the worst that I've been involved in, and I've been here 18 years," Graver said Monday.
"The downfall was people got lured into it the fact that it was mild temperature-wise yesterday morning and afternoon, and I think more people went out that shouldn't have, and when it went bad, it went bad really fast."
Tim McPherson, a member of the Jones County Snow Chasers who helped organize rescue efforts, said a bulk of the rescues occurred on Highway 1 between Martelle and 151, where an estimated 17 cars were stranded either on the highway or in the ditch.
Jeremy Petsche, a first-year club member who lives just outside Anamosa, was the first snowmobiler to respond on Highway 1. He later was joined by three others who came out with a groomer — a tractor unit used to move and manipulate snow.
"A lot of people were a little scared and didn't know for sure where they were going or what was going to happen, but I think once they saw the groomer get out and people getting pulled and heading out, they figured their turn would be coming up shortly," Petsche said.
As part of an informal assistance agreement with the Jones County, the club gives the sheriff's office an updated list with members of the club, their addresses and their contact information each fall. Then, if the sheriff's department needs help with a rescue or other emergency situation, the department contacts the closest Snow Chaser for assistance.
Cory Smith, another club member, used a groomer to help get cars out of the road and get those stranded off the highway. He said many of the cars they dug out were stuck in snow drifts in the middle of the road.
As the group pulled a car out of the snow with a chain, the motorists would warm up in the cab of the groomer. Once a car was in a position to be driven and the groomer had made a path for it to drive out, people would get in and get a ride off the highway to a shelter or staging area.
Many motorists were taken to the BP gas station in Fairview, where a sheriff's deputy was waiting to assist them. Stranded motorists also were taken to shelters in different communities, including the Monticello Police Department, Martelle Fire Department, Cascade City Hall and the ambulance office in Wyoming.
"Driving in it, you just could not see — the groomer is different than other vehicles, it moves slow and you have windows all around you and flood lights and security lights — so you have a lot of lights and you still couldn't see a few feet in front of you," Smith said.
"Some cars had to follow me out because they couldn't see the road, they just had to follow my lights out until they got to a point where they could see and could pull around me and get out."
Smith said some of the club members drove cars out because a few motorists were so shocked they didn't want to drive, and some cars had to be left because their batteries were dead by the time rescuers reached them. Graver said the groomer was "invaluable" as it helped to extract vehicles so they could re-open the road for plows.
"It was cold, with that kind of wind and temperatures. as soon as you stepped out, it was like instantly your face was freezing," Smith said, adding many snowmobilers packed extra clothing and helmets to transport people safely from the highway to the gas station.
Graver said the rescue efforts ended at about 1 a.m., Monday. Six members of the Jones County Snow Chasers and two members of the Anamosa Fire Department, who had snowmobiles, assisted with the rescues. Terry Brownell, the club's president, said that was the most people he's ever had out at one time.
McPherson said the 25-member club has been around since the 1970s, but the group has been more active over the past 10 years, adding members spend most of their time marking ditches with signs and flags to keep people from wrecking their sleds or getting hurt by hitting rocks and culverts.
The club also holds fundraisers throughout the year to help raise money for spina bifida, which is one of the Iowa State Snowmobile Association's causes.
"The number of people that were in bad situations just complicated the situation and, in some situations, where it could have been one or two people, we could have gotten to them a lot quicker," Graver said. "But because there were so many, it was several hours before we got to some people."It just gets back to using common sense. When you don't have to be on the road, when it's not an emergency, you need to stay home or stop and get a motel."