By Elizabeth Wolfe, Laura Ly and Amanda Jackson, CNN
(CNN) - As millions of holiday travelers piled into cars and flooded into airports with stuffed bags in tow over the weekend, the paralyzing winter storm that has been sweeping across the US threatened to halt or significantly delay many people's journeys.
This year's surge of year-end holiday travelers is expected to push toward pre-pandemic levels. But many people's plans were frustrated by the major arctic blast that plunged much of the nation into frigid temperatures last week and continued to batter parts of the Upper Midwest and Northeast with heavy snow and blizzard conditions over the weekend.
More than 15,000 flights within, into or out of the US were canceled between Thursday and Christmas day, while thousands more were delayed at airports from Atlanta to Las Vegas.
Southwest Airlines accounts for a hefty share of the cancellations, leaving thousands of passengers stranded in an operations disaster CEO Bob Jordan has called "the largest scale event that I've ever seen."
Closed highways and dangerous road conditions also made driving treacherous, particularly in hard-hit New York where Governor Kathy Hochul said "scores" of vehicles were abandoned on roadways and snow plows and recue vehicles were seen buried under snow in ditches. In upstate Erie County, more than 500 people were stranded in their cars Friday night, despite a county driving ban due to brutal blizzard conditions.
From stranded tour groups to strangers brought together on a long-haul drive, here are the stories of travelers who grappled with the chaotic Christmas weekend's travel woes.
College football ref can't make it to his final game
After 28 years as a Pac-12 Conference college football referee, Michael Mothershed was planning to work his last game before retirement on Monday.
But the storm had other plans.
Mothershed tried to fly out of San Diego on Saturday morning to Detroit for the Quick Lane Bowl. But his Southwest flight was canceled, he told CNN on Tuesday morning. He waited in line for four and a half hours before getting booked on a Delta flight that was then delayed.
A substitute ref worked the game, leaving Mothershed to watch on TV.
"It was strange," he said. "I did not expect this to happen at all. At all. It's one of those things you experience and chalk it up and try to move on.
"To close out my career as a referee on the field, I did not anticipate this.
"It's really a privilege to be able to work as an official and to work at this level."
Stranded South Korean tour group finds shelter with NY couple
When Alexander Campagna heard a knock on his door while the storm was raging outside, he thought it might be a neighbor or his father-in-law who lives close to his home near Buffalo, New York, he told CNN.
But instead, he found a group of South Korean tourists standing on his steps, looking for shovels to dig out their bus, which had become stuck in snow while they were en route to Niagara Falls,
"I thought 'Oh, no. This could be very serious and deadly,'" Campagna said. So he and his wife Andrea invited the 10-person group to wait out the storm in their home, communicating with three members of the group who spoke English, he said.
"I think early on, when our guests entered our house, there was the belief that maybe this storm was about to blow over and they would just jump back in their vehicle and get on their way towards Niagara Falls -- which is, in the best weather, about a 30-minute drive from our home," he said. "With the blizzard, it may as well have been in another galaxy."
Digging in the freezer
Once the reality of their situation began to set in, Campagna went digging in the freezer for anything that might be able to keep the small crowd fed. Soon, the couple's stock of frozen chicken and a pork shoulder was put to use.
"We had a couple of natural-born cooks in the group who were happy to prepare some exquisite Korean entrees," he said.
Andrea Campagna told CNN that they "absolutely" plan to stay in touch with their guests.
"Several of the guests said that we're more than welcome to come visit them. And we may take them up on that offer. We really connected with them. They became like family to us," she said.
While the couple was grateful for the company of their guests, Andrea added that they are also appreciative of the volunteers and emergency and rescue personnel "that spent day and night taking care of people trapped in their vehicles in the freezing cold."
"Those are the real heroes in this blizzard of Buffalo, demonstrating why Buffalo is called the city of good neighbors," she said.
Dozens of trapped tourists rescued by police
As two police officers in the storm-stunned city of North Tonawanda, New York, worked against thrashing snow and winds to recover trapped drivers on Christmas Eve, they came across a large bus filled with dozens of stranded tourists.
The bus, which was headed to Washington, DC, had driven off the road and become lodged in the snow just a foot away from a ditch, leaving the vehicle at risk of slipping and flipping over with about 60 people inside, City of North Tonawanda Police Chief Keith Glass said in a release.
While the officers tried to drive small groups of the tourists to a nearby warming station, their pickup truck kept getting stuck in the intensifying storm, Glass said.
"They ended up literally lining these people up and walking them from the bus to the warming station," he told CNN. In his release, Glass said the group was unharmed after walking about a mile through the knee-deep snow.
"They spent the whole night in the warming shelter without a lot of food," he told CNN.
On Christmas day, the police department used a SWAT bus and a school bus to take the tourists to a hotel in Niagara Falls to "await the next leg of their journey back to Washington D.C." the release said.
North Tonawanda is about 11 miles from Niagara Falls.
Four strangers share a viral 20-hour drive
An unfamiliar group of travelers found themselves desperate for a way home on Thursday when their flight from Tampa to Cleveland was abruptly canceled. As they discussed their options while standing in the Tampa International Airport, someone floated the idea: What if they rented a car and made the drive together?
Soon, Bridget Schuster, Greg Henry, Shobi Maynard and Abby Radcliffe had stuffed into a car and were on their way in what became a 20-hour drive to get home for the holidays. Schuster documented the group's roadtrip antics on her TikTok, capturing roadside snow angels, food stops and hazardous road conditions, garnering almost 10 million views on her first video.
Luckily, their last-minute decision left them with little traffic to slow them down.
"Being from Ohio, honestly, it wasn't gonna stop me. Like, I have driven through some pretty bad snowstorms," Henry told CNN's Alisyn Camerota.
Maynard said the fateful trip is a lesson to not automatically assume the worst in others.
"I think a lot of times people can just see the bad (in people). For us, we automatically had that connection, it seemed like, because because we had that desperate time of, almost like, 'We need to go back home to visit our families,'" he said, adding, "Definitely just trust people more. Maybe give them a chance."
Family loses luggage, car seats after flight to Disney canceled
On Christmas Eve, Michelle Perkins, her husband JJ, and their six children were ready to jump on a plane from Las Vegas to Orlando for a surprise trip to Disney World and Orlando Studios, the mother told CNN.
They would soon learn that they were among thousands of Southwest Airlines passengers whose flights had been canceled over the weekend and into Monday.
While several airlines canceled or delayed flights, Southwest accounts for a huge share of the flights that have been called off. On Monday, the airline had canceled 71% of its flights -- just over 2,900 total -- as of 10:10 p.m. ET, according to FlightAware. The frustrations are only expected to continue Tuesday.
After Perkins and her family found out about the cancellation, the devastated family paraded to baggage claim to pick up their car seats and luggage, only to be told that the bags and car seats would still be sent to Orlando before the family could request they be sent back, Perkins said.
"They turned us away without our luggage and without our car seats for our two young children," she said, adding that they luckily had extra car seats.
Perkins's husband waited on the phone with Southwest for nearly 10 hours to get their flights refunded and file a claim on their baggage, she said.
She added that they were told their luggage was at the Las Vegas airport, but have still not been reunited with their bags, which contain Christmas gifts from Santa.
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