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Hancock takes in snow-stranded travelers

March 16, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

HANCOCK - When Sgt. Shawn Tasker entered Hancock's Sheetz store on Sunday evening he walked out of a snowstorm and into a blizzard of people.

The place was packed with travelers who had left Interstate 70 in the midst of the storm, the Hancock police officer said.

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Some 50 cold and hungry travelers were trying to get warm and escape the area's biggest snowfall of the season, Tasker said.

They came to the right town.

Hancock residents, businesses and charitable organizations rallied to feed and shelter about 150 travelers who were detoured to the town after being stuck for hours behind a massive pileup on Interstate 70.

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The wreck included 36 vehicles, including four tractor-trailers, two buses and 30 cars and light trucks, Maryland State Police had said.

"It was a terrific community effort," Town Manager Louis O. Close said. "Everyone pulled together and did what had to be done. People couldn't believe how quickly everything fell into place."

The town's commercial lodgings were jammed with sidelined travelers when the Hancock Motel called Close with news that five families were without a place to stay, he said.

Soon afterward, the Hancock Truck Service truck stop called to tell Close that two bus loads of travelers needed a place to stay.

Town officials, including Police Chief Donald Gossage, decided to open the Hancock Middle-Senior High School gym, the town's designated disaster shelter, at 8 p.m., Close said.

Tasker spread the news to the people at Sheetz and elsewhere in town, he said.

But there was a problem.

Cots and blankets usually kept at the school for such situations weren't to be found, Close said.

After a few phone calls, Close tracked down the sleeping supplies to the Funkstown Fire Hall and arranged for a Civil Defense vehicle to haul them back to Hancock.

But there was a mix-up and only 48 cots and 80 blankets arrived, not enough for the 150 stranded travelers at the shelter. Close said a second call netted another truckload of supplies.

Weaver's Restaurant owners Penny and Roy R. "Randy" Pittman were getting ready for bed when Close called just before 10 p.m., Penny Pittman said.

The Pittmans had already put in a long day.

At the request of local motel managers, they had kept the snow-covered town's only open eatery operating for nearly four hours after the planned 3 p.m. closing time to serve those stranded by the storm, Penny Pittman said.

The Pittmans gave their customers free raisin-filled cookies as they left the restaurant, she said.

It was nearly 8 p.m. when they finally locked the doors.

Then Close called.

"He asked if we had any leftover donuts or pastries at the restaurant," Penny Pittman said. "There really wasn't much left over."

The Pittmans went to survey the scene at the high school, where stranded travelers were beginning to pour in.

"Your heart just goes out to people at a time like that," Penny Pittman said. "What if it had been us stuck out there? We'd want someone to help us."

After picking up some of their in-town employees, the Pittmans returned to the restaurant. They had only 36 hamburger buns on hand, so they "scurried someone down to Sheetz," Penny Pittman said.

They whipped up 100 ham sandwiches, 10 dozen glazed donuts and 12 dozen assorted cookies, she said. They also sent along 12 leftover cream pies and five gallons of orange juice.

Diamonds Etc. owner David Smith, a town councilman, loaded his truck with food to take to the shelter, Penny Pittman said.

"If you could have seen the little kids' faces when they saw those cookies, it paid for itself, it really did," she said.

Close said the Sheetz store donated coffee, tea and condiments, and the Interstate Service Coalition provided snacks and sodas from its Hancock food warehouse.

Carl T. Norris of Norris Building Contractors furnished snow removal equipment and manpower to clear the school parking lot, Close said.

He said the school's staff offered support services throughout the night, and made the locker room showers available in the morning.

Among those who stayed at the shelter were 49 high school band members from St. Louis, who had been on their way home from Baltimore.

Before bedtime, there was a concert of jazz and religious music by the St. Louis musicians from Lutheran High School South and four stranded rock musicians.

"It was actually exceptionally good," said Gossage.

It wasn't the first time the small community opened its doors to those in need.

Close said the disaster shelter was used during a tornado threat and several big snowstorms over the past five years. It also was pressed into service when an Amtrak train had to be evacuated due to a bomb threat in nearby West Virginia.

"We're glad to help anybody that's in distress," Close said. "We're here to do whatever has to be done."

- The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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