Wait, we’re clearing the road!

 Eyewitness accounts about 12 hours in snowdrifts on a road near Novosibirsk  03/14/2013, 16:46
Wait, we’re clearing the road!
photos by Artur Gutman

The weather in Siberia is unpredictable. Here, you can see fresh snow in April, or get caught in blowing snow — a tunnel of snow, which is swept up from fields by the wind and turns into a trap. On 9th and 10th March, about 600 cars got into such a predicament on the Novosibirsk — Leninsk-Kuznetsk road. This regional road is particularly busy at the weekend because of traffic to ski resorts in the Kuznetsk Basin region. It has become a nightmare for those who were on it on 9th and 10th March. Cars with passengers, including young children, were stuck in a snowy trap for about 12 hours, many without warm clothing and petrol. The next day, the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MES) and traffic police blamed the incident on the drivers themselves. Eyewitnesses told Sib.fm’s correspondent how they waited for help, ate snow and made friends.

Olga Yaroshenko

We left Sheregesh (ski resort) at 11:30 on 9th March. Before that, we checked the weather forecast and there were no storm warnings. Everything was as promised on the road — sun and no wind at all. We drove past a traffic police post in Leninsk-Kuznetsk and the Novokuznetsk ring road without any problems. There were no warnings there either.

At about four in the afternoon we stopped in traffic. We thought that it was an accident but it turned out it was because of a fire engine that was clearing the first snowdrift. Some official got out of a MES jeep, waved his hands, and off we went.

Now I’m thinking if things were already bad then and only got worse further down the road, then why weren’t we stopped or at least warned at that time?

We drove further through a strong blizzard with the hazard lights on. Visibility was less than 3-4 metres. We stopped in yet another traffic jam at around 20:00. By then, we’d heard, in the form of «someone said something to someone», that people were being put up for the night. We were advised to go to Kourak. Where’s that? You couldn’t see 2 metres in front of the car.

We turned back — it seemed the best solution at the time — and hit another spell of blowing snow. Our car was blocking the road. At this point it got pretty scary. The men in the next car became hysterical and were shouting «Accelerate! Accelerate!». But we knew that we’d just ruin the gearbox. When the men are in hysterics, it’s all over. We pushed the car out anyway and drove back. We told people we passed that there’s no way to get to Novosibirsk, but they had been informed that the road would soon be cleared and it would be possible to drive through. No one knew what to do and what was going on.

We drove into the village of Zhuravlyovo, where all the hotels were already full. Everyone was sitting in cafés and talking to each other. There was a relaxed atmosphere: people were eating, playing cards, having a drink. We spent the night in the car. In the morning a traffic police car was stood by the exit road from the village to Novosibirsk and didn’t let anyone through. So we waited until lunch. It was really scary when we passed the drifted snow on the way back: you drive through the tunnel and realise that people sat here all night.

It annoys me that everyone’s saying we didn’t listen to the warnings! There weren’t any warnings anywhere. All right, we’re two adults, but families were travelling with their children. Who would risk their child? No one knew anything.

Surely people can’t think that 100 intellectually challenged people couldn’t wait to get out on the road?

As for the information about the four support points that were opened in villages... No matter how much I read about them in the media, I can’t find anyone who was there. Maybe they were opened, but no one knew how to get there and that’s why people stayed on the road.

Artur Gutman

The first part of the journey on 9th March wasn’t difficult. We often drive along that road and know it well.

When we saw the first round of blowing snow, we carried on, like everyone else. Then at the traffic police posts no one said «Do not continue, think again». But after a few kilometres we came to a standstill. I went to see what had happened and my wife stayed in the car, reading a book. When we go on long drives, I always bring warm clothes, extra petrol and food supplies. So the situation that emerged later didn’t scare me.

At that moment, four cars from the direction of Novosibirsk and five from Leninsk-Kuznetsk had already got stuck. There was a Road Patrol Service officer on each side, but only a part of their car was visible by the bus stop.

A milk tanker driver helped to pull out cars. A great man, always ready to help, even though he probably knew himself that his vehicle wouldn’t hold out. But it seems like he decided that you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do anyway. In the end, he got stuck too.

A K-700 tractor arrived half an hour later, pulled out the milk tanker and got to work in the corridor of snow. The sun was shining, the mood lifted and we started to hope that we’d soon be on the move. Time passed. I found out what was happening from a Road Patrol Service (RPS) officer.

The man was an absolute hero. All that time he stood in the wind and didn’t even go to get warm. He co-ordinated the work and answered questions — he stood outside for 24 hours.

A grader turned up at about 7 pm and started to work, before being joined by a small tractor. They pottered around in the snow together. Meanwhile, it had got dark and people started to get anxious.

I was psychologically comfortable. I was warmly dressed, was able to dig and help people. But there were people who didn’t go outside because they had light shoes on or infants with them.

There were about 150 cars behind us. The main problem was that people did not know what to expect, when they would get to drive further or whether they’d get any help at all. Some people tried to drive around the traffic jam, but our RPS officer did everything he could to avoid full-blown chaos on the road. Though he didn’t really have any specific information either.

Later on, rumours started to go around that we were going to stay there until morning. We set off before midnight and drove, trying not to lose sight of the car in front while not crashing into it.

Once on the way I pulled out a man who had skidded onto the roadside. At night, while we were pulling out a lorry, we had to pour sand under its wheels that we’d scraped out of a Kamaz truck. Then even I was freezing cold.

About two or three hours later a grader arrived and we followed him almost all the way to Novosibirsk. He immediately cleared the places that were potentially dangerous for cars. Apparently, this machine was accompanying vehicles to petrol stations, but not everyone knew that.

While we were on the road, I tried to call the MES. Didn’t get through. They didn’t hand out petrol or warm clothes where we were. Maybe they did on other parts of the road, but we didn’t see it.

We saw an MES point closer to the city, where you could get petrol and food, but it didn’t make sense to stop. We’d already passed the worst.

I’m not criticising the services who were involved. Many thanks to those who did what they could and helped. The thing that bothers me is the discrepancy between the words and actions of some government agencies. On our part of the road, I observed road workers and traffic police at work. I didn’t see any other services.

Yes, there wasn’t much equipment, but at least it arrived. The road workers did their job, albeit slowly. But from the news you get the impression that the MES saved everyone again.

Yegor Yegoshin

On 9th March I left for Tanay (ski resort). We drove in a column; at first the periods of blowing snow were short and infrequent, then one car flew off the road. Everyone stopped and quickly turned it back over. I’m still amazed that no one ran out and started filming. The further we drove, the more often we drove through spells of blowing snow, which became longer.

We were doing no more than 40km/h in a column of 30 cars and no one was overtaking. Everyone understood that we were in the shit. I drove on and 100km from the city slammed on the brakes in front of a minibus that was coming towards me head on. We got out and had a decent chat — we were all driving in a single lane on the road. It turned out that there were about a hundred cars behind him, so we had to give way.

I know perfectly well what it means to be in a snow-covered car in bad weather, so we immediately stopped and decided to go back as soon as we came across the first blowing snow.

I don’t understand people who are going on about the MES now. I have no complaints. If it wasn’t for a random accident, we would have got back even faster. The people who went on further or turned around later had nowhere to go, of course. Couldn’t go forwards, couldn’t go backwards.

Sergei Kuvalgin

We came to a stop between 12 and 1 pm. At first, everyone accepted the situation because they didn’t know the full extent of it. But when the second, third, fourth and fifth hours passed, things got worse. We were all uncomfortable. We were travelling with a seven-month-old baby and ran out of nappies and baby food, the only things that we had with us.

We knew almost nothing; we got information from a Road Patrol Service officer who obviously knew very little himself. We started to worry when we realised that we’d be there for a long time and the weather was getting worse. By evening I was being blown off the road.

Police officers told us that road services don’t clear the whole road. They write complaints, but they have no effect. So they had information that the road was in bad condition.

We didn’t get catch cold, thank God. I had enough petrol, it was warm and we found food, water and nappies. Everyone made friends while we were standing around and shared what other people needed. The baby didn’t notice that we were there for 16 hours, but we panicked. Snowdrifts the size of a two-story house are scary.

They could have closed the road earlier or warned us that road was either badly cleared or, in some places, not at all. We only saw movement when everyone started phoning the MES. That was only in the evening and we were stood there all day.

Read this interview
in Russian

In Russia, we always blame individuals and not the authorities, but I don’t agree with that. If they had issued a warning, each person’s decision would have been on his own conscience. But as it was, you drive out onto a clear road on a sunny day and find yourself in such a mess 80 kilometres later. Even though it would be have been enough just to give a warning.

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