Jeff Heuchert email@example.com
Thursday's unexpected burst of winter weather wreaked havoc with snow squalls and sudden whiteout conditions, and made for one especially long day for motorists stranded at the sides of roads, the emergency responders who attempted to respond to the calls, and the three busloads of students at Downie Central public school whose day there didn't end until after 8 p.m. when visibility on roads finally improved.
"I've been in transportation for over 20 years, and never seen anything like it," said David Frier, general manger of Huron Perth Student Transportation Services. "We've had snow squall warnings before, but I've never seen anything materialize that bad, and for that long. Usually a streamer passes through and moves on, but that just held on all day."
Frier said it was around 6:45 a.m. that he started hearing reports about blowing snow on Highway 21 up near Lucknow. Over the next two hours the treacherous conditions spread across the region, hitting the Stratford and St. Marys areas later in the morning when many buses were already out on the roads.
Every one of the 350 school buses that operate across Huron and Perth counties were impacted in some fashion on Thursday, whether they never made their runs, were delayed, or were stranded at a school or business, he noted.
Three buses were able to drop off students at Downie Central in the morning but weren't able to leave. While the schools all have contingency plans in place to keep students overnight if necessary, Frier said everyone involved decided to wait the storm out and bring them home that night.
"They were safe inside the school. The principal was there and a number of staff were there," he noted. "They kind of had a regular day, they just had some visitors all day hanging out in the teachers' lounge."
One bus had to pull over at Klomps Nursery & Garden Centre on Highway 7, another at the Boston Pizza on Erie Street. Parents were able to pick up those students during breaks in the weather, Frier said.
Some buses heading to schools west of Stratford were able to make it to the OPP detachment in Sebringville, where officers were able to provide an escort with cruisers and lights activated. Police took similar action with any school buses that had to pull over on area roads.
"It was a fantastic effort by everyone involved," Frier said.
Snow squall watches and warnings were issued by Environment Canada that covered southern Ontario. Drivers were being advised to avoid "non essential" travel.
"It was a blast of snow, anywhere from two to four centimetres accumulation in over an hour," Environment Canada meteorologist, Geoff Coulson, was quoted in the KW Record.
Arctic cold followed the snow, he said. Northwest winds across Lake Huron brought more snow in squalls through the afternoon.
Warming centres popped up throughout the day for stranded motorists, including at the Kiwanis Centre in Stratford.
OPP closed all roads in Perth County, including Highway 7/8, around 9 a.m. as blizzard-like conditions descended upon the region. Soon after they sent out a notice advising they were already "inundated with calls for assistance from motorists involved in collisions and from those that are stranded due to whiteout conditions." Between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., officers investigated 51 collisions.
One of the incidents involved an OPP officer whose cruiser was demolished after being hit from behind at approximately 12:30 p.m. on the east shoulder of Perth Road 131. Const. Lisa Irwin sustained non-life-threatening injuries and was taken to the hospital. She was treated and is now at home recovering.
Irwin was investigating another collision at the time. Her cruiser was fully marked, had its emergency lights on, and flares set up on the road. She had two civilians in the backseat of the cruiser at the time it was hit by a northbound pickup truck coming from Milverton. The driver of the pickup, a 23-year-old Perth East woman, was driving too fast for the conditions at the time and passed over the flares, according to police.
The two passengers in the cruiser sustained minor injuries and were treated by paramedics at the scene. The truck driver was uninjured.
In a statement later in the day, Perth County OPP Insp., Steve Porter, said drivers need to be more cognizant of the weather and adjust their habits accordingly.
"It's upsetting to see that people are continuing to drive so fast in these poor conditions. They are unable to react to obvious emergency signage, cruiser lighting and flares," he added. "As a result they are placing themselves, the public and our officer’s lives at risk."
Errol Bangari was just starting his day at the Festival Marketplace mall, where he is the operations manager, when he received a call at around 8:30 a.m. from his children, who had been involved in a collision moments earlier on Highway 7/8 west of Shakespeare. His son, 21, and daughter, 19, were driving into Stratford from Baden when their car clipped the back of a vehicle that was stopped.
They pulled over to the side of the road, and it's there that Bangari said another vehicle traveling west on the highway wasn't able to stop in time and smashed into their car from behind.
"The car went flying at least 10 feet into the snowbank" from the impact, he said.
Bangari drove to the scene and stayed with his kids until emergency responders arrived. His daughter was transported by EMS to the hospital as a precaution. He said she is still in considerable pain.
But he's thankful that's the worst anyone was hurt. He said things could have been far worse had his kids chosen not to stay in the car and keep their seatbelts on.
"If the (driver) couldn't see their car, he wouldn't have seen them," he added.