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12/21/06-Denver, CO

Blizzard Victims Stalled For Another Night

Nearly 5,000 travelers who thought they were beating the Christmas rush struggled to find a hotel room Thursday as a blizzard interrupted their holiday plans.

Many others faced another night on the hard floor at Denver's snowbound airport.

The storm blanketed most of Colorado under 2 feet of snow, bringing businesses, government and holiday shopping to a standstill.

It shut down the nation's fifth-busiest airport and created a ripple effect that disrupted air travel around the country just days before Christmas.

"We can't go home; the highway's closed. We can't get to the car; it's 10 miles away," said Jodie Hartfield of Colorado Springs, Colorado. "And the hotels are not cheap."

She spent a sleepless night squeezed between a signboard and a phone booth with her husband and three young children.

Denver International Airport -- once touted as storm-proof -- closed on Wednesday afternoon, and a spokesman said it would not reopen until noon Friday.

By then, more than 2,000 flights in and out of Denver will have been canceled, officials said.

On Wednesday night, airport authorities provided a few hundred cots for the estimated 4,700 stranded travelers and doled out scratchy Red Cross blankets, along with diapers and baby formula.

The majority who did not receive a cot, slept in lines at ticket counters.

Others huddled on bench seats, or sought shelter against walls and counters, covering themselves with clothing, luggage and newspapers.

The baggage pick-up area proved a popular spot -- it was dark enough to sleep.

Plows combed the runways, but falling and drifting snow covered them all over again within 30 minutes, airport spokesman Steve Snyder said.

Airport managers tried to persuade travelers to leave.

Public-address announcements emphasized there would be no flights for another day while plows cleared parking lots and worked the 10-mile access road to Interstate 70.

Officials organized convoys of 10 buses, led by a snowplow, to take travelers to hotels 25 miles away in downtown Denver, 800 at a time.

One angry passenger, pharmacist Robert Helmer, waited for the first convoy of the day with bags under his eyes.

Helmer managed to get on a United Airlines flight to St. Louis, Missouri, on Wednesday morning.

But he sat for an hour waiting for a late-arriving flight attendant, then three more hours on the tarmac before the flight was finally canceled.

He spent the night on the airport floor, covered by what he could find in his carry-on bag.

"There's a lot of very bitter people here, and I'm one of them," Helmer said. "This was major mismanagement."

It was the biggest snowstorm to hit Colorado since a March blizzard in 2003 that shut down the region and killed six.

The storm brought life to a standstill for 3.8 million people along the Front Range -- a 170-mile urban corridor along the eastern edge of the Rockies that includes Denver.

Police and National Guardsmen rescued hundreds of people stuck in cars.

Some mountain areas got more than 3 feet of snow, and up to 25 inches fell in the Denver metropolitan area.

Despite the slick roads and deep drifts, there were no immediate reports of any deaths or serious injuries were reported.

But Denver's normally bustling downtown was all but empty Thursday morning, with a few people trudging down the middle of unplowed streets.

Other people got around by snowmobile.

Mail delivery across the region was suspended, and many malls were closed on what should have been one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

The storm -- which lingered through midday Thursday -- also shut down I-70 and I-25, major routes through the West.

Hartfield's family, desperate to get to Seattle, managed to rebook a flight for Christmas Eve, but held out hope of getting onto an earlier standby flight.

Hartfield and her husband, Andy, used luggage, Red Cross blankets, a cot and a flattened cardboard box scrounged from another family to wall off a spot for the night.

While the parents tended 5-month-old Michael, their other children, Drew, 5, and Alexis, 3, made an adventure of the mess.

"The kids had a blast. It was like a camping trip for them," Hartfield said. "But we were tossing and turning the whole night."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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