Rescues underway for drivers stranded on snow-clogged Manitoba highways

Some drivers stranded on snow-choked highways in western Manitoba for 18 hours are finally safe and warm.

Firefighters from the Rural Municipality of Whitehead, between Brandon and Virden, rescued several drivers from the Trans-Canada Highway late Tuesday morning.

"They had to drive in a snowmobile, that's where we were, [and they] fuelled us up. And then they brought in a plow in our area and they had to plow out the roads so we could turn around and back out," said Sean Schofer, who was with his family, heading to Melville, Sask., from Ohio,  when the storm hit.

Once a path was cleared for the vehicles, "we just convoyed" to the Whitehead community hall in Alexander to wait out the storm, Schofer said.

They have since been moved to the Alexander School gymnasium but for the emergency crews, the work isn't done yet.

"As we speak they're still fuelling up several vehicles," Schofer said. "There's probably vehicles stranded for about 10 miles."

Some have been sitting on the side of the road since the storm blew in around 4 p.m. Monday, making visibility non-existent on many highways.

Samantha Benn was in her car, near Alexander, since 4:30 p.m., watching the gas gauge drop as she ran the engine to keep the heater going.

She had dropped her granddaughter off in Brandon and as she headed back home to Birdtail Sioux First Nation, "the storm came really fast."

"It was clear at the time and then all of a sudden, everything just came to a whiteout, and all the vehicles just came to a halt," she said.

Early on Tuesday, a tired-sounding Benn told CBC she was getting very concerned.

"I am worried. I'm just wondering how I'm going to get gas from here, because the next town over will be, I guess, Virden. And I know I'm not going to make it that far," she said.

Close to midday, she had reason to be much more cheerful.

"The Alexander fire department came to the rescue, brought us fuel, and we have a place to stay at the hall," she said.

While those emergency crews were being praised, people in the town of Souris were being lauded by a rescued American couple.

​Ally Gonzalez and Evan Davis, who were travelling from the U.S., became stranded on the side of the road not far from Souris.

When word of their plight reached Gonzalez's mother, Lori, back in New Jersey, she reached out to a local Facebook community group, Souris Manitoba Talks, pleading for help.

Community members quickly chimed in, trying to find the best way to rescue the young couple.

"It [was] pretty much whiteout conditions. It started off early [Monday] afternoon with rain and sleet and then it quickly turned to sideways winds, very high winds and whiteout," said Traci Ealing, who started the Souris Manitoba Talks page.

"We have a Canadian flag down the bottom of our property and one-third of it ripped right off. It didn't survive the storm."

The temperature was dropping and the young couple ran out of gas. That's when a few people from the community braved the cold and went on a rescue mission.

"They first ventured out with trucks and then that didn't work, so they got some tractors, some of the local farmers on their tractors, and got out there," Ealing said.

"Eventually they made it to them. It was a little bit sitting on the edge of your seat for a while because they got stuck and then they got help. Then they made it out there and got the kids."

After six hours in the car, Gonzalez and Davis were welcomed into a home in the community for a warm night's rest.

"I think the community all pulled together and got out there and the ones we have to thank the most are the fellas and girls and gals that got out there and ventured out to get them," Ealing said.

Finally warm and inside, Gonzalez posted a message of gratitude on the community Facebook page.

"Thank you to everyone who was working to help me and Evan out of our situation! We will be forever grateful for you all! We are finally settled with our family for the night! Nice and warm," she wrote.

Her mother, Lori, also thanked the entire community of Souris.

"They were rescued by a couple of heroic men who had risked coming out into the terrible weather and risked their safety to get to them. They are now safe and sound in a family's home who took them in for the night," she wrote.

"My thanks and gratitude cannot be expressed enough to this very special community who will always be in my heart."

The RCMP have also been able to get onto some of the closed highways, checking on as many people as they can.

Police are still waiting for plows to fully open the roads but in the meantime, they are using four-by-four trucks, said Sgt. Paul Manaigre.

So far there have been no medical issues, he said, adding officers will try to bring fuel to those who have run out.

If people are stranded, he said, they should call 911 to let police know where they are and not just post about it on social media, because officers aren't always monitoring Twitter.

For a list of highway closures, check the province's website or use the map below.