Helping stranded motorists: Hammond community steps up

Stranded in Hammond
Published: Dec. 26, 2022 at 6:08 AM EST
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May people braved the roads over the weekend despite travel bans and state of emergency. Some got stuck and had to abandon their vehicles. 7 News anchor Garrett Domblewski traveled to Hammond, where several found refuge from the storm.

HAMMOND, New York (WWNY) - Cars buried in snow littered State Route 37 driving into Hammond on Christmas morning, the vehicles stranded and abandoned during the weekend blizzard.

“Seen a lot of winter, never seen this much this fast,” Hammond Fire Chief Lenny Bickelhaupt said.

Dozens upon dozens of vehicles were left behind on north country roads as travelers took refuge in local fire halls like the one in Hammond.

“Every bit of this was solid cots,” Bickelhaupt said, indicating the inside of the fire hall.

Bickelhaupt says 51 people spent the night Saturday, including 15 children. Half a dozen dogs also stayed at the fire station.

Blankets from other fire departments, cots from the Red Cross, and food from volunteers’ homes were all scrounged up to make the stay more comfortable.

About 30 volunteers spent the Christmas weekend serving food and helping to rescue people from the storm.

“The snow kept coming,” Bickelhaupt said. “We could not see at all. People were stranded and we just kept bringing them in. We had snowmobiles. The sheriff was here. The state police were here with UTVs, and we just kept rescuing and bringing them back here, keeping them warm and dry.”

Bickelhaupt says people would call into the station or to county dispatch. They were then able to take a rough GPS location, go out, and search.

“We just drove and found them,” the fire chief said.

That all started Friday night around 5 p.m.

Ralph Hilborn was one of the first people into the station and spent two nights there.

“Yup, yup, this is me, this is where I was,” he said. “Last night I was here, Friday night I was over there in the chair before the cots got here.”

Hilborn was on the job, driving a box truck back from Canada to Pennsylvania. He couldn’t cross in Buffalo, so he made his way to the Ogdensburg crossing.

“I remember I crossed the bridge around 4 and it took me about two hours to get this far,” Hilborn said. “I actually followed one of the plows into town and then when he turned, I kept going straight until I couldn’t go straight anymore. It was an ordeal. I mean, I’ve been through inclement weather before, I’ve driven in a lot of stuff, but nothing like this.”

With so many families stuck at a fire hall on Christmas Eve, people in the Hammond area took it upon themselves to keep up the Christmas cheer.

“The community really stepped up for this,” Bickelhaupt said. “Local people and families brought in presents for the children that spent the night, so they had presents. Even had a guy, Santa Claus came last night and visited the kids.”

“Santa came last night somehow, I don’t even know how that happened,” Hilborn said, “but there were presents here from the next town over, they came down in snowmobiles.”>

Come Christmas morning, it was time to get people back on the road.

The work went quick, and there were only a few people left at the fire hall by noon.

“About two hours, yeah, we got here and got food started around daylight, started feeding everybody and soon as they were full, started getting them to their vehicles and getting them on the road,” Bickelhaupt said.

Hilborn was one of the last to leave. His truck was still stuck, and firefighters were attempting to melt some of the snow underneath it to get him out.

It wasn’t how he pictured spending this Christmas, but he says he’s grateful for the volunteers.

“They saved lives here,” he said. “I’ll be forever thankful for that. I’ll tell you, honestly, that’s the most terrified I’ve been in any situation. But we all made it, we all made it thanks to everybody here in Hammond.”