RALEIGH — Stranded drivers from across the Triangle found reasons to smile Wednesday as friendly neighbors made a difficult day a little easier.
Good Samaritans provided the snow-weary drivers with rides, helped pull cars out of ditches and offered strangers warm places to rest.
When an ambulance transporting a heart attack patient got stuck at the intersection of Van Dyke Avenue and Gardner Street in Raleigh, neighbors were quick to rally to the rescue.
They helped carry the patient on a stretcher for a little more than 100 yards to a nearby ambulance, said Julie Dixon, who watched the action unfold as she and her husband, Cabot, assisted other drivers.
The Dixon family also opened their home to four strangers during the course of the afternoon as drivers slipped and slid down the roads. They chatted and ate popcorn while the drivers figured out their next moves.
“To me, it was just what anyone would do,” Julie Dixon said.
Matthew Bergens and his girlfriend, Stormi Gantzer, were two who took refuge at the Dixon house after the Mustang that Bergens was driving called it quits.
“They were helping everyone in any way possible,” Bergens said. “They were just really nice. All the neighbors were.”
That’s a sentiment Johanna Johnson can get behind.
Johnson nearly spent the night in the home of strangers after she made an ill-advised detour through a hilly Durham neighborhood.
Johnson left her job at the Duke Center for Living around 1 p.m. Wednesday for what’s normally a 20-minute commute home. But after hours of gridlock, she turned to her GPS for a detour through back streets.
Soon her minivan was sliding down a hill and into a ditch on Buckingham Road. With the car out of commission, Johnson knocked on the door of Eric Hirsch and Jordan Brophy-Hilton.
“When I approached him, my plan was to just buy some warm socks from him and try to walk somewhere,” Johnson said. “I was just so desperate to get somewhere familiar. Eric talked me out of that.”
Soon after, eight other cars got stuck on Buckingham, all of them following the same GPS detour. Hirsch and Brophy-Hilton welcomed all the drivers into their living room, offering up tea and snacks. Other neighbors saw the mess outside and banded together to push the cars up the hill. With multiple hands helping out, they freed all the cars – except Johnson’s, which was too far off the road and tangled with utility lines.
“It was just a bunch of complete strangers helping anyone and everyone they possibly could,” Johnson said.
With the others on their way, Hirsch and Brophy-Hilton invited Johnson to spend the night.
But eager to rejoin her husband and kids, Johnson managed to get a ride from her neighbor, Bobby Kohltfarber, who was out picking up stranded drivers with his four-wheel-drive truck.
Raleigh dentist Dirk Vice also took to the roads on his ATV to help other drivers, especially those stuck in ditches on the side of the road.
When Mike Stella encountered Vice at a friend’s home, he was instantly cheered. Stella had spent time in gridlock on Creedmoor Road and knew plenty of drivers were still far from a place where they could spend the night.
“It just made me feel great,” Stella said. “It struck me as just such a nice thing to do.”
Hotels, stores stay open
Businesses also opened their doors when they could. Drivers set up camp in hotel lobbies while they waited for traffic to clear, and The Streets at Southpoint in Durham kept part of the mall open as a shelter for drivers.
At the Raleigh Convention Center, the five employees able to make it to work Wednesday had a tall order: dinner for 360 first responders and road crew members working throughout the city.
When bad weather hits, the center becomes city hall’s kitchen. But the chef didn’t have much advance notice, supplies weren’t coming in, and he had half the usual kitchen staff.
“This had to be a pot-luck, whatever-he-could-find-in-the-cooler meal,” said assistant director Doug Grissom.
On the menu: vegetable lasagna, hot dogs and pecan pie. It’s the same sort of food that convention attendees get, Grissom said, prompting some of the weary road crew members to ask, “Are you sure this is for us, because this is awfully nice.”
In Chapel Hill, about three dozen people found shelter and warm socks in Flyleaf Books after getting stuck in traffic.
Co-owner Jamie Fiocco said the store closed at 2 p.m., but the staff decided to wait after seeing cars backed up on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
They started letting in folks to use the restroom but found many also were wet and cold from the snow, Fiocco said. Fortunately, the store had a box of samples from the maker of Magic Socks, a line of socks, towels and other child-oriented products that expand when you add water.
One little girl, out walking with her mother, didn’t have a coat either, she said. The one they retrieved from the lost-and-found box was a perfect fit.
Others welcomed the offer of dry towels and washcloths, umbrellas and bottles of water, Fiocco said.
“It felt really good to help. People were standing outside, and we were warm,” she said. “It was fun, a real community experience. People were very gracious and grateful.”
Staff writer Tammy Grubb contributed to this report.