Hundreds left stranded by bomb cyclone in Douglas County

Task force created to rescue motorists throughout county

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Les Lilly has been a bus driver with the Douglas County School District for 37 years. On March 13, he took on a different role — serving on a rescue team with law enforcement and road maintenance crews helping bus motorists stranded in a blizzard to nearby shelters. When it came to the snowstorm, Lilly said he'd never seen anything like it.

“They were the most challenging conditions by far,” Lilly said. “Thank goodness for the snowplow drivers and deputies from the sheriff's office because they were our escorts.”

The rescue team was part of an impromptu task force created that day by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. Three teams roved throughout the county to pick up stranded drivers and shuttle them to a shelter. Each comprised a patrol vehicle with its lights on, a snowplow and a school bus provided by the Douglas County School District. The  buses were equipped with chains that made them safer to drive in such conditions, according to district staff.

Deputy Cocha Heyden worked from Douglas County's Emergency Operations Center from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. as the blizzard — officially considered a bomb cyclone — raged in Douglas County and across the Front Range on March 13.

Phones in the emergency center rang nonstop. More calls inundated the 9-1-1 dispatch center throughout the weather event, she said. Dispatch at one point grew so backlogged there were approximately 50 pending calls from people stranded by the snow storm.

“We had people calling saying they were stuck all different places throughout the county,” she said.

It was but a snapshot of the havoc unfolding throughout the county as first responders tried to reach stranded motorists on perilous roads and get them into shelter during the massive blizzard, which brought high winds and heavy snow. Some of the heaviest snowfall was in Franktown, at 9 1/2 inches, with Lone Tree, Parker and Castle Pines each getting 8 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Douglas County commissioners signed a local disaster emergency declaration in the late afternoon, according to a statement posted by the sheriff's office on Twitter.

"This declaration will make state resources accessible to Douglas County for the most urgent needs during this blizzard event," the Tweet said.

Gov. Jared Polis declared an emergency and authorized the activation of the Colorado National Guard to assist with rescue efforts in the state.

Heyden said the most dire emergency early in the storm was a 40- to 50-car pileup that unfurled near the Greenland Exit on I-25 in the southern part of the county, creating a hazardous roadblock through the next morning and a ripple effect amid the storm.

Some drivers continued traveling into the area but became stranded when they reached the impassible crash. Other drivers knew the road was closed and tried to circumvent it by taking routes like Highways 83 and 105.

They didn't make it far, Heyden said, either getting stuck in large drifts or having to stop when the snowfall grew too thick.

“The accident area was a nightmare, just a triage of vehicles all over,” Lilly said.

DCSD began deploying buses about 10 a.m. to rescue stranded motorists on I-25 and highways across Douglas, Elbert and El Paso counties, including Highway 86, Highway 83 and Highway 105. Some bus drivers would work until 3 a.m. the next morning.

According to Lilly, he and seven other bus drivers braved the storm for more than 12 hours, from noon past midnight. By the end of the shift, they had rescued and transported more than 450 people to locations functioning as shelters throughout the county.

The school district's director of transportation, Donna Grattino, said drivers will be paid time-and-a-half for their work during the storm.

“I'm sure they will get some perks from us, like a lunch or something like that to support them,” she said. “We have a great team and they are all very dedicated to making sure everyone is safe, not just our students but everyone in the community.”

Shelters operated from the Douglas County Events Center, New Hope Presbyterian Church and Miller Activity Complex, all in Castle Rock, as well as St. Peter Catholic Church in Monument, which is in northern El Paso County. Marked originally as a shelter, New Covenant Church in Larkspur closed down due to power issues.

Shelters also operated from the Larkspur and Franktown fire stations and the Lone Tree Recreation Ccenter. The Red Cross and Salvation Army assisted in providing people food, blankets and cots.

“Total, we had 667 people in all the shelters,” Heyden said, adding that most were rescued from the roads. “We spent several hours just going to all these known motor assists.”

On social media leading up to the storm and throughout the weather event, the sheriff's office urged people to stay home. Driving not only places citizens in danger but the first responders who come to their aid if an emergency arises, Heyden said.

“The sheriff's office, CDOT, all the first responders,” she said, “they send out these alerts for a reason.”

She reminded people if extenuating circumstances require they leave their home in a storm, have enough gas, warm clothes and supplies to stay safe until help can arrive.

At 7 a.m. March 14, Lilly and five other bus drivers were back on the roads, helping transport people who had stayed in shelters overnight to their abandoned vehicles. Heyden said numerous agencies were still working to clear roads and abandoned vehicles, some left in the middle of roadways.

In a Facebook post, Douglas County school board President David Ray called the bus drivers “heroes.”

Dozens of community members expressed similar sentiments over social media. On one Facebook thread, a group of parents discussed delivering gifts — baked goods and gift cards were among the ideas — to the district's bus drivers after spring break, the week of March 18-22.

“The best crew ever is the Douglas County Bus Drivers,” one person wrote. “They deserve a raise and our praise.”

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