Barbara McNeil, who drives buses for N.C. State University’s Wolfline, had Monday off and was looking forward to a quiet day with her two-year-old grandson, Bryson.
But by mid-morning, McNeil found herself out helping her neighbors as car after car, SUV after SUV and truck after truck went into a spinning frenzy trying to escape the icy road in front of her home at the intersection of Lakewood and Rosedale avenues in West Durham.
McNeil, a petite woman with a ready smile, has lived here for 12 years. She knew that the snow and sub-freezing temperatures would turn her quiet, hilly street into a whir of cars with spinning wheels going nowhere fast, just as it did in neighborhoods throughout the Triangle on Monday.
By 4 p.m., McNeil had helped nearly a dozen drivers cut through the ice and out of the neighborhood, even as several other hapless drivers had lost all hope and left their vehicles behind.
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McNeil, outfitted in a heavy cotton pull-over hoodie jacket, yoga pants and fur-lined boots, sat in her living room on her “perch,” a navy-blue couch, peering out a window and waiting to help stuck motorists.
“I’ve been doing this ever since I been here,” she said. “I been trying to help people.”
Before beginning work several years ago as a Wolfline driver, McNeil drove buses for 20 years with Duke University. That’s what she tells befuddled motorists, by way of introduction and reassurance that help has arrived.
“I drive buses,” she yells while bouncing down the concrete steps of her home to assist them. “I can get you out.”
The first motorist stuck on the ice was her brother’s best friend, Barlow, driving a forest-green Ford Expedition. She nodded toward the Jeep Cherokee that was less than 10 yards behind the flailing Expedition with spinning wheels, in danger of rolling backward and crashing into the Cherokee.
McNeil, with the help of a couple of others in the neighborhood, helped Barlow back the Expedition past the Cherokee and onto nearby Kent Street, where it trudged off.
“He was going to hit that car,”McNeil said about that Expedition’s close encounter with the Jeep. “I knew that he wouldn’t if he kept turning his wheel the right way. You have to work in that snow.”
McNeil was sitting on her perch when another car whizzed by, the driver seemingly in control of the icy challenge. But a driver’s fond wishes can shrivel in sub-freezing cold and icy roads.
“I thought he had it,” she said. “He came back walking.”
One of the last people McNeil helped was Tosha, her brother’s girlfriend, who was having a difficult time driving her Honda up a small hill on Lakewood Avenue toward Chapel Hill Road.
“My brother’s at work,” she said, as if by way of explanation as to why he wasn’t out helping Tosha. “He drives 18-wheelers.”
McNeil watched the wheels of Tosha’s Honda spin in place. Then she persuaded Tosha to let her drive and free the car from its icy entrapment.
She gunned the engine and turned the steering wheel in the direction that the car slid on the ice. But she was not able to coax the car up the icy hill, so McNeil backed it up and veered onto a side street, Rosedale Avenue, where Tosha would be able to get out of the neighborhood.