Stranded – the longest night on the A38

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The Independent Online

Sue Rolfe knew she was no longer dealing with an ordinary snow shower when her windscreen wipers and tyres gave up on the battle to navigate a path through the whiteness enveloping her car. Along with 500 other motorists travelling in south Devon on Thursday night, she found herself trapped in the A38 blizzard.

In some ways, the 56-year-old hotel receptionist was fortunate. She abandoned her car and was able to walk to work at the Exeter Court Hotel close to Devon's main trunk road. But, within hours, she was helping to accommodate dozens of fellow refugees from the snow as the hotel became one of a series of ad hoc rescue centres in a full-scale emergency.

Overnight, the occupants of dozens of cars and lorries were rescued from hypothermia by police, soldiers and mountain rescue experts equipped with 4x4 vehicles after a foot of snow fell in less than two hours on the A38 and its surrounding area at around 10pm on Thursday, turning one of the country's most heavily used A roads into a succession of impassable snow drifts.

In scenes reminiscent of the extreme conditions that trapped thousands of motorists in the cars on the M11 motorway in Essex six years ago, stranded travellers found themselves waiting for emergency assistance as the asphalt beneath them became indistinguishable from embankments and verge. The distressed travellers were then the recipients of an equally intense onslaught of weather-driven altruism as pubs, town halls and even Exeter racecourse opened their doors.

Mrs Rolfe, whose employers laid on free tea and coffee as well as offering heavily discounted room prices to rescued drivers, said: "I just had to abandon my car and walk. Everyone was stuck. It was chaos. It's still snowing very hard. It came down so quickly. We had everyone walking in off the street."

Lucy Johnson, another trapped motorist, said: "It was horrific. I've never driven in anything like it in my life and hope to never drive in anything like it again. Cars were skidding off the road. It was coming down so heavily you could barely see.

"In front of me, you could just make out all the flashing lights and realised something was wrong. I still don't know how I'm going to get home. My car is stuck and I'm stranded." The unique nature of the blizzard was underlined by meteorologists who said it was due to localised freak conditions caused by a "curtain" of weather sweeping an area of south Devon as narrow as few hundred metres in places. Motorists were also trapped on the A380 near Exeter as the snow came down, as well as the A386 near Tavistock.

A Met Office spokesman said: "Although snow fell widely across the West Country, the severe problems around Exeter were caused by an intense narrow curtain associated with a thunderstorm. It was very localised. Radar returns showed very intense activity caused by the collision of relatively warm damp air from the south colliding with the cold air which has been sitting over most of the country this week." The result was a ragged parade of exhausted escapees from the most extreme weather of a week of extraordinary conditions. A couple dining at a village pub, who left shortly before snow began to fall, were rescued by fellow pubgoers at the Nobody Inn in Doddiscombleigh after they rang back to the landlady complaining they were stuck and lost.

Devon and Cornwall Police said it had deployed every 4x4 vehicle in the two counties to reach stranded drivers, who were taken to temporary accommodation at Chudleigh town hall, Okehampton College and Exeter racecourse, where the clerk of the course, Barry Johnson, trudged uphill through three miles of snow to open its buildings.

A police spokesman said: "Anyone who has been rescued was very, very pleased to see us."

Douglas Laing, chairman of Chudleigh town council, said: "It's been an incredible night. We had 200 people who were evacuated from their cars. The whole community pulled together."

The heavy snowfall brought further unexpected drama to Andrea Dunn, a 34-year-old farmer's wife from North Tawton in central Devon, who went into premature labour with twin girls as the snow began to fall on Thursday night.

It was only after an ambulance and an RAF Sea King helicopter had tried and failed to reach Mrs Dunn, who was not due to give birth until 3 March, that a fire engine equipped with snow chains managed to bring the labouring mother to the community hospital in nearby Okehampton. She gave birth to the babies at 4.30am yesterday.