Snowplow crews keep on riding out blizzard

Highway Maintenance Supervisor Ryan Cole inspects the blade Highway Maintenance Supervisor Ryan Cole inspects the blade of a plow at the NYSDOT Syosset Maintenance Facility. (Feb. 9, 2013) Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

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In 11 years of working for the state Department of Transportation, Ryan Cole has spent most of his time doing "various things -- fixing potholes, cutting grass, fixing guardrails."

But when snow falls, the 33-year-old highway maintenance supervisor from North Lindenhurst switches gears to work marathon shifts driving a 10-speed dump truck filled with salt and equipped with two plows.

He began work at 4 a.m. Friday and, with several sleep breaks in a trailer at the DOT yard in Syosset, was still at it Saturday night.

"I like the snow, I like plowing," Cole said before pulling out on another run Friday night on his "beat" of routes 107 and 25A, and Glen Cove Road on the North Shore, with a Newsday reporter riding shotgun. "I like being out there and watching the snow come off the plows. It's cool if you can help the drivers."

He doesn't mind the fatter paycheck either.

"The overtime is good," he added. He said he'll spend it on "bills, rent, and I've got a 1-year-old."

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But there's a downside besides the long hours that he keeps at bay with the occasional energy drink and radio playing in the cab.

"It's definitely dangerous," he said. "You definitely have to pay attention to what you're doing and to what other drivers are doing.

"I've been lucky," he said. "I've never been in a major accident."

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With the truck full of salt, he said the traction is so good that he rarely loses control and doesn't need tire chains.

Cole works with another driver in a second truck, sometimes going in separate directions or "running tandem" with a wing man when conditions are really bad.

On Friday night, as the rush-hour traffic dissipated, Cole headed north on Route 107 in Old Westbury, using levers to lower the front plow and the "wing plow" on the right side.

He veered toward the centerline or pulled in the wing plow to avoid cars stuck in the snow. He was careful to stop for red lights to avoid creating more accidents around him.

"You have to watch out for people cutting out in front of you," he said as an SUV came from behind and passed when a light turned green.

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His seat high in the cab provides a good view of the road except when the snow falls heavily and the wind blows it sideways. Then the drivers concentrate on posts marking the edge of the pavement. When the visibility gets so bad that they can't see the posts, they just pull over and wait, Cole said.

When traffic permits, he cruises along at the preferred speed of between 15 and 30 mph. Go faster than that, he said, and "you could lose control. And you don't want to throw wet snow and knock down mailboxes."

Or worse, pedestrians. "You could seriously injure somebody," he said.

With few other vehicles on the road Friday night, the truck moves along smoothly. Snow gushes off the plow blades like waterfalls, illuminated by spotlights on the side of the truck as the engine growls.

"Uh oh," Cole said while driving west on Route 25A. A tree overloaded with snow had fallen out over a traffic lane. "It's just another thing you have to watch out for."

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"I like plowing like this when there's a lot of snow and you're taking it down because you're helping the public," he said before heading back to the depot. "It gives you a sense of accomplishment."

Saturday afternoon, after more long hours on the road, Cole was back in Syosset for some more rest.

"The visibility wasn't too good," he said of the overnight hours. "We had a lot of whiteouts. But we got through it."

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