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Long Island roads icy, LIRR delayed, flights canceled

Several people suffered minor injuries after their vehicle

Several people suffered minor injuries after their vehicle overturned on the median of the Long Island Expressway near Exit 69 on Sunday afternoon. (Dec. 20, 2009) Credit: James Carbone

As a ferocious storm moved through Long Island, residents who needed to travel faced a dilemma Sunday: Driving was discouraged as the roads turned icy, flights in and out were canceled at all the region's airports, and the Long Island Rail Road was hampered by snowdrifts and frozen switches.

>> PHOTOS: Record-breaking snow pounds LI

Parts of Long Island got more than 20 inches of snow, the National Weather Service said.

LIRR systemwide delays of one to two hours were the norm, but for some the homeward journey took four hours - and counting.

One Ronkonkoma-bound LIRR train with 150 passengers on board left Penn Station at 2:53 a.m. and was supposed to reach its terminus at 4:14 a.m., but by 7 a.m. it was still en route, stranded in Wyandanch. There, a rescue engine was coupled to the train and began towing it back to Farmingdale, where passengers switched to a second train about 8 a.m., the LIRR said.

Drifting snow and frozen switches had delayed the train at Jamaica and Hicksville, spokeswoman Susan McGowan said. Some of the passengers may have been on an earlier train that left Penn Station at 1:16 a.m. and for them, the journey home would have taken six hours - and counting.

There were a few exceptions, including two Hofstra University students who had been on their way back to campus after working Saturday night as bartenders in Manhattan and missed their stop in Mineola.

William Moriarty, a Boston resident, said, "We were heading towards Mineola but we missed the station. We were stuck out there for three hours with not much information at all" from the train crew.

He was still at the Farmingdale depot at 9 a.m. "waiting for the trains to start again or a bus or a taxi or anything to move. I've been trying to get back to Hofstra since midnight."

Fellow student and best friend Sarah Arrington said, "They didn't give us any information. We didn't know what it was going to be five minutes or two hours, and it ended up being three hours without any heat or lights. It was just absolutely miserable."

After arriving back at Farmingdale, she said, "they told us they were going to make sure we had buses or something - but nothing. We're just sitting here." She said the only announcements made at the station were general about delays but no specific details.

The railroad had patrol trains and antifreeze trains operating all night, but they were not enough to forestall the shutdown of the Far Rockaway and Long Beach lines throughout the early-morning hours.

"It's been a challenge," McGowan said.

Some trains were skipping stops - and, in effect, doubling as snowplows - because speeding through a station knocks snowdrifts from the tracks, LIRR officials said. "Customers at stations may see some trains operating nonstop between stations, and we ask them to please don't get frustrated. They're keeping up their speed to move snow off the rails and the third rail," McGowan said.

Some electric trains are also equipped with scraper shoes to remove snow and ice from the third rail, she said.

For those scheduled to fly or awaiting flights bringing holiday guests, the looming blizzard caused travel headaches even before it arrived.

Dozens of workers planned to plow runways all night at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma so flights could take off and land this morning as scheduled, the commissioner in charge said Saturday.

Barring whiteout conditions, a crew of 68 was to work overnight to ready the airport for the day's business. That begins with the arrival of a Southwest flight from Tampa at 10:05 a.m., and the departure of another Southwest flight for Fort Lauderdale at 10:35 a.m., Islip Transportation Commissioner Teresa Rizzuto said. The town runs the airport.

"We'll be ready to accept the flights," she said.

Five of seven flights scheduled to depart after 4 p.m. and eight of 12 arriving flights were canceled Saturday afternoon.

All trips south to Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., had been canceled by 10:30 a.m. Not long afterward, the list of scrubbed flights was expanded to include some bound for California, Texas and Florida.

At LaGuardia Airport, Chris Matthews, 30, a client services manager, and Ruth Lowe, 25, a sales support staffer, were planning to camp out at the airport overnight. The two Ramsey, N.J., residents hoped to make a 9 a.m. flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., aboard JetBlue.

"We'll look at it as an adventure," said Matthews, their luggage at their sides as they passed time in the food court.

Forecasters said the storm moving up the East Coast was expected to spare New York City strong winds, but not a deep blanket of snow.

Department of Sanitation spokesman Keith Mellis said the department would focus first on clearing snow from primary roads and highways needed by police, fire and emergency vehicles. Crews then would address feeder streets that connect to primary routes, he said.

"We have our salt spreaders positioned throughout the five boroughs," Mellis said.

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