SHARON SPRINGS — A Colorado teen learned about the harsh realities of a Kansas blizzard early Saturday when emergency responders arrived just in time to save him from freezing to death in a ditch.
“He was knocking on the door of hypothermia and meeting his maker,” said Wallace County Sheriff Larry Townsend.
Townsend said the 17-year-old from Fountain, Colo., made a call to 911 a little after 4 a.m. and reported that he didn’t know where he was, but his car had run off in a ditch. Dispatchers lost contact with him — either because his phone died or the signal was lost — and they were unable to reach him again.
However, the county’s new 911 system, which was installed last year, was able to pinpoint the location from where the call was made. Townsend said Wallace County was the fourth county in the state to receive the new 911 system as part of a two-year statewide upgrade.
“If we wouldn’t have had that, we’d have found him dead this morning,” he said.
Townsend got in his patrol vehicle and drove west of Sharon Springs to find the young man in conditions that were less than ideal. About three inches of blowing snow had created a total whiteout, and visibility was zero.
He said he drove with his side window open so he could watch for the edge of the road. Even at that, he said he entered the ditch several times himself.
Townsend said the 911 information got him to within 20 feet of the young man’s two-door car, which he found in a ditch along U.S. Highway 40. To get there, the teen had driven around the barricades deputies had erected about two and a half hours earlier when they had closed the road.
When Townsend arrived, the car was empty. In winds measured at 50 to 55 miles per hour and a temperature of 23 degrees that felt more like 1 degree with wind chill, the car’s driver had gotten out and taken off on foot.
The stiff wind filled in the footprints the teen made in the snow as fast as he made them, and Townsend had no idea which direction to start looking. He called in help.
Eight search and rescue volunteers with the Weskan Fire Department assisted Townsend and another deputy as they split into teams and went in four directions looking for the young man. About half an hour later, he was found, Townsend said.
Townsend said the teen was lying immobile in a ditch along a dirt road near the Colorado border about a mile and a quarter to a mile and a half away from his car. He was wearing a “very light” coat that was unbuttoned, one glove and tennis shoes. He said the boy could barely move or speak and his core temperature was dropping when he was found.
“I’m not stretching it a bit — very much longer and we’d have been calling the coroner,” he said. “He’s a very lucky young man this morning.”
Townsend said during the 28-mile ambulance ride to a hospital in Cheyenne Wells, Colo., the boy began warming up and talked a little bit, saying he was just trying to get home. Townsend said the last he heard the teen, whom he declined to identify, is “doing fairly well.”
Townsend said there was no indication that the boy had broken any law other than driving around the barricade.
“We have quite an issue with people running barricades,” he said. “We’re not able to man them all. If you drive around one, you’re doing it at your own risk.”
Townsend said in his experience it’s also pretty common to see people traveling in severe weather without proper attire. He said he’s seen people hop out of their cars wearing shorts to gas up during snow storms.
Townsend said young people don’t seem to know the risks they are taking if they get out in hazardous weather. Lessons are usually learned the hard way.
“These young kids that haven’t been in a Kansas blizzard don’t realize the danger,” he said. “We rescue a lot of people in blizzards, but this was definitely the worst.”
Townsend said he hopes this young man has learned his lessons.
“Lesson No. 1: Don’t drive around a ‘Road Closed’ sign. Lesson No. 2: Don’t get out of your car when you do,” he said. “I hope he realizes school was in session. He graduated. We’ll see what he learned.”