Rescue workers used military trucks and other heavy vehicles to pluck motorists from more than 500 vehicles abandoned along ice-slicked roads and in drifting snow throughout North Dakota and take them to churches, schools, bars and gas stations that became makeshift shelters.
About 800 people were rescued starting Friday afternoon, and most remained at shelters Saturday as highways remained closed. North Dakota National Guard spokesman Capt. Dan Murphy said the rescue mission ended Saturday morning but soldiers were still on duty, patrolling highway entrances.
Only minor injuries had been reported following hundreds of pileups and crashes, Highway Patrol Lt. Jody Skogen said. A no travel advisory had been lifted, but snow and abandoned cars still blocked the roads, authorities said.
Winds of more than 60 mph created whiteouts during Friday's blizzard. North Dakota State College freshman Katie Woodbury was driving from the school in Fargo to her family's farm in Stanley, in northwest North Dakota, when road conditions forced her take shelter at a church in Medina.
"It was scary _ I was talking to myself the whole time," she said of her drive. "I just want to get home and see my mom and dad and the 13 new piglets at the farm."
She said she talked to her parents by phone Saturday and, after having a hot meal, was just waiting for the weather to clear.
The church and a school in Medina opened as shelters after the storm forced some 400 travelers to take shelter there, more than doubling the population of the town with 335 residents. Bar owner Bill Fleetwood called the scene surreal.
"People are walking around in the streets looking for something to do," he said Saturday. "It's crazy."
About 70 soldiers took part in the rescues, using military trucks that could plow through huge snow drifts to collect scores of stranded drivers and take them "to any warm building that was available," Murphy said.
A pregnant woman who went into labor Friday night on Interstate 94 was rescued near Steel and taken to a shelter in the town, about 40 miles east of the nearest hospital in Bismarck, Skogen said
"There was no way to get her in to Bismarck," Skogen said. "You name it, we had all kinds of situations playing out."
The pregnant woman was being cared for at an ambulance station in Steele and had not yet given birth Saturday morning, said Mona Thompson, director of the Kidder County ambulance service.
The Department of Transportation closed Interstate 94 between Valley City and Fargo and Interstate 29 from the Canadian border to the South Dakota border. Highway 83 was closed between Minot and the South Dakota border, and U.S. Highway 2 was closed from Grand Forks to Devils Lake.
Todd Hamilton, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Bismarck, said only 2 to 4 inches of snow fell in most parts of the state Friday but the strong winds that came with the storm made conditions bad. The storm had largely moved out of North Dakota by early Saturday morning but below-freezing temperatures remained, he said.
Jim Albrecht, the emergency manager in Stutsman County, said about 600 people were still taking shelter in Medina and other small towns there. He said he couldn't remember a worse storm in a state known for nasty winter weather. The storm created a white-out from the get-go, and people became stuck immediately.
"It's been a long time since we had a storm like this that hit us so hard and so fast," he said.