Stranded on buses overnight by a monster snowstorm that has shut down parts of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, hundreds of Catholic high school students from Nebraska and elsewhere nevertheless seemed to have things relatively in hand this afternoon.
Returning from Washington D.C., where they took part Friday in the annual March for Life, they at least had food and water on board, said Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Omaha. A nearby maintenance building gave them access to bathrooms.
And while there was nothing resembling a chapel anywhere near the cars, buses and trucks stopped westbound between the Bedford and Somerset exits, the group managed to hold Mass anyway by improvising, creating an altar out of snow, he said.
A photo sent back home by one of those stranded showed them searching for branches along the road so they could be fashioned into a cross.
Joe Arkfeld, 18, a senior at Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha, shared his observations in a phone interview as he and others on the bus watched a movie, "The Martian," to help pass the time.
Their trip home has essentially been frozen since everything in front of their bus came to a halt about 7 p.m. Friday.
"It's still snowing, not as hard as earlier but it's still snowing," he said. "We've done some running around outside. There were no snowball fights, but one of my friends made a snow angel."
He said the best part of the delay was when he and other students talked to a priest on board about how they would approach various life situations. The worst?
"When we woke up and asked how far we had moved overnight. We were told 'about 50 feet.'"
The snow in the vicinity was estimated by the Turnpike Authority to be two feet deep in spots as of midday today.
Late this afternoon a spokesman for Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, said eight of its buses returning from the Washington D.C. march also had become stuck on the Turnpike. The 300 to 400 passengers stalled by the storm since about 11 p.m. Friday include the school's president, Father Sean Sheridan, spokesman Tom Sofio said.
He said the buses are believed to be 11 miles from the Allegheny Tunnel.
In all, 500 cars, buses and trucks remain stranded this afternoon, Gov. Tom Wolf said during a press conference. The Turnpike Authority had no immediate reports of injuries.
"We were proud that they stood up for a cause they believed in," Mr. McNeil said of students and adults who participated in the pro-life trip; he commended their reaction to the storm as well. "We're proud of them now for their resilience.
"What we're hearing from them is that despite the circumstances, they're having fun," he said. "They have snack foods, sandwiches and pretty much whatever else a modern day teenager would eat."
The Archdiocese said the 350 students and 35 chaperons are on the six buses. A seventh managed to get beyond the area of stalled traffic, and the Archdiocese said other students from Nebraska, Minnesota and elsewhere also are apparently stuck.
Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo this afternoon could not estimate how long it would take to extract the vehicles and buses that are stuck, noting that the forecast says snow could persist in parts until 7 a.m. Sunday.
He said the initial problem Friday night appeared to involve one or more tractor-trailers that jackknifed as their drivers tried without success to climb the hill on the eastern slopes of the Allegheny Mountains that leads to the Allegheny Tunnel.
"From there, it was pretty much a domino effect," he said.
Local fire departments, medical crews as well as other personnel with help from the National Guard have gone vehicle by vehicle, tapping on windows and checking the well-being of those inside. He said there appears to be at least three pockets of stuck traffic spanning about 23 miles of the turnpike.
The Omaha group had planned to leave for home today, Mr. McNeil said. Instead, they left Wednesday afternoon but as soon as they reached the turnpike, traffic before them came to a standstill.http://www.post-gazette.com/news/state/2016/01/23/Archdiocese-of-Omaha-students-celebrate-Mass-on-snow-altar-while-stranded-on-PA-Turnpike-due-to-snow-storm/stories/201601230125