NEW YORK — When Angela Madsen was pulled off her plane and her wheelchair stayed on board, she knew she was in for a rough night. The paraplegic athlete struggled to get into the bathrooms at Kennedy Airport. Turning the wheels on her borrowed wheelchair strained her shoulders. Sleeping was impossible.
"I actually got out of it and laid on the floor," Madsen said.
It was, she said, a miserable time — one that was shared by millions of people on Monday, in travails big and small, serious and surreal, after the blizzard of December 2010 sucker-punched the northeastern U.S. during one of the busiest travel days of the year.
Air travel in the nation’s busiest airspace nearly shut down, and thousands of stranded passengers turned terminals into open-air hotels while they waited for planes to take off and land on plowed runways. Flights slowly resumed, although experts said it would likely take several days to rebook all the displaced passengers.
Adriana Siqueira, 38, was rapidly running of money with no end in sight to her travel nightmare at New York’s LaGuardia. The housekeeper from Ft. Lauderdale has been told she and her 10-year-old daughter cannot get home until New Year’s Day. They have already spent one night in the terminal and can’t afford a hotel.
"I have no idea what I’m going to do," Siqueira said. "I don’t feel good."
This storm simply didn’t play fair, cold-cocking the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow on a holiday weekend when everyone seemed to be out of town, groggy with holiday cheer or just unprepared.
In New York, residents outside Manhattan complained of a sluggish response by snow plow crews who still hadn’t finished clearing the streets. State Sen. Carl Kruger, a Democrat who represents Brooklyn, called the city’s response a "colossal failure." Fire officials said the unplowed streets and abandoned cars made it harder to respond to emergencies, including a five-alarm, wind-whipped blaze at a Queens apartment building Monday night.
A testy Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the city’s cleanup effort, saying the crews were being slowed down by abandoned cars on the streets.
"There’s no reason for everybody to panic," he said. "Our city is doing exactly what you’d want it to do."
After spending Sunday night tossing and turning on airport floors, thousands of bleary-eyed travelers spent Monday standing in lines, begging for flights, fighting for taxis and hunting for hotel rooms. Tuesday meant more lines, but at least there was the prospect of departure for some of the stranded.
The storm wreaked havoc on almost every form of conveyance: from the buses at the nation’s busiest terminal near Times Square to the region’s usually punctual commuter trains.
A tractor-trailer skidded off a road and smashed into a house in Maine. A woman went into labor on a New Jersey highway, causing a traffic jam that stranded 30 vehicles. Rails on the normally reliable New York subway shorted out. Winds topping 65 mph ripped power lines, leaving tens of thousands of people in the dark across New England.
In central Pennsylvania, a gust of wind derailed a freight train on a bridge near Harrisburg on Monday, sending two shipping containers into the Susquehanna River. The derailment disrupted Amtrak service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg Tuesday.
Two of the New York area’s major airports — LaGuardia and Kennedy — began to receive inbound flights on Monday night. Newark Liberty began receiving inbound flights Tuesday morning. Hundreds of flights were canceled at all three airports.
Passengers crammed into airports in other cities on Tuesday hoping for a chance to reach their destinations. At Chicago Midway International Airport, lines stretched around inside and out in the cold as weary travelers got there early in the hope of getting on a flight. More than 225 flights were canceled Monday in Chicago.
Wanda Johnson, 56, had been trying to get to Italy for several days for a vacation.
"I am trying to stay positive but I am getting really frustrated. It’s my first vacation in years," she said.
She had arrived several hours before her afternoon flight in hopes of flying out earlier on standby, but nothing was available.
Two magic words — "on time" — lit up at least half the departure boards early Tuesday at LaGuardia, where passengers stretched out sleeping under blankets along the windowsill of a food court.
For bedraggled passengers who were finally about to board flights home, there was a sense of exhaustion that overwhelmed any excitement they might have felt.
"I don’t know if I ever want to go on vacation again, honestly," said 28-year-old Tiffany Bunton, who was heading through security with her 8-year-old daughter, Trystan, on their way back to Fort Worth, Texas.
They’ve spent two nights at a hotel in Queens "going stir-crazy," Bunton said.
"The relief actually came for me when we finally got a taxi to the airport this morning," she said.
The storm, which dumped 20 inches of snow in Central Park Sunday, was New York City’s sixth-worst since record-keeping began in 1869, said Adrienne Leptich, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. A February 2006 storm dropped 26.9 inches of snow on Central Park, breaking the previous record, set in 1947, by half an inch.
The storm was sprawling and fickle, dropping 29 inches on Staten Island; 32 on Rahway, N.J.; 10 on Franklin, S.C., about 12 on Philadelphia; and 19 in South Boston but only 6.5 in West Hartford, Conn., according to the Weather Service.
Some travelers tried to make the best of it. At the Newark airport, Frank Mann, his son 9-year-old son Stephen and his girlfriend Jackie Douglas said their night on the terminal floor was sort of like taking a camping trip.
They made beds out of luggage trays turned upside down, ate hot dogs from the snack bar and even did some bird-watching: pigeons seeking refuge from the elements were taking baths in puddles of water dripping from the ceiling.
"This airport becomes a whole different place at night," said Mann, a 53-year-old lawyer from Houston.
When things got boring, Stephen pulled out his Kindle to finish a book he had started before getting stranded.
The book was about another youngster stranded far from home by bad weather: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Hawley reported from Newark, N.J. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Glen Johnson in Haverhill, Mass.; David Sharp in Portland, Maine; Leon Drouin Keith, Sara Kugler Frazier, Samantha Gross, Samantha Henry, Karen Matthews, Adam Pemble and David Porter in New York; Colleen Long in Chicago; Deepti Hajela in Fort Lee, N.J.; George Walsh in Albany, N.Y., and Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield, N.J.