Couple stranded, 'frozen stiff' in 1977 blizzard give $2,000 to thank N.D. rescuers
WALHALLA, N.D. - A Michigan couple who survived a 30-hour ordeal in a stranded car during a blizzard more than 37 years ago are saying thanks to the Pembina County road crew that rescued them.
WALHALLA, N.D. – A Michigan couple who survived a 30-hour ordeal in a stranded car during a blizzard more than 37 years ago are saying thanks to the Pembina County road crew that rescued them.
William and Mary Reichert, who live in Howell, Mich., recently sent a pair of $1,000 cashier’s checks, which tentatively are scheduled to be presented Tuesday to the two county highway department employees, James (Jimmy) Doyle and Brian Danielson.
While the Reicherts cannot be in Cavalier for the presentation, they said they remain grateful for the efforts of the two men whom they credit with saving their lives Dec. 9, 1977.
The couple sent a thank-you note in the form of a letter to the editor to the Cavalier Chronicle after they made it safely back to Michigan. Then, they went back to their lives.
Bill Reichert, who retired a few years ago from a career at General Motors, now is a computer technology teacher at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Reicherts recently discussed that blizzard experience during a Lenten discussion at their church.
“We were talking about faith, and about any religious experiences that changed our lives spiritually, or strengthened our faith,” Bill Reichert said in a telephone interview this week.
“All this time is passed,” he said. “I’ve been thinking I didn’t do enough to thank them. We were right on the end. We were just about frozen stiff. These men saved our lives.”
The stormy trip
The Reicherts had been on a ski trip in Manitoba and made a stop in Winnipeg, where Mary’s sister lives. It wasn’t storming when they left Winnipeg in their two-wheel-drive Chevy Suburban on Dec. 8, 1977.
Because fuel prices were much higher in Canada, Reichert wanted to make it to Grand Forks to fill the tank.
“It was extremely cold out,” he said. “We got to the border and all of a sudden, a storm raged. I could not see 2 feet in front of us. Semis were passing us, and then I couldn’t see at all ahead.”
Then, the alternator light lit up on the dashboard.
At the border, the two-laned Manitoba Highway 75 changed to Interstate 29, which had just opened to four lanes north of Grand Forks to Pembina, N.D., earlier that year.
He looked at the map and saw St. Thomas, west of I-29. When he saw a highway sign that read “St. Thomas ... Exit 1 mile,” he figured he was going to make it.
What he didn’t realize was that while the “exit” was a mile away, St. Thomas actually was another 12 miles to the west.
Nonetheless, they took the exit and started driving westbound on Pembina County Road 11.
“The wind was blowing so hard, I couldn’t see a thing,” he said. “And there were big snowdrifts on the road.”
The long wait
They stopped and tried to turn around.
“We ended up in the ditch with the back end pointed north,” he said. “There was barely any gas and the alternator light was on. I turned off the ignition to save gas, but the battery was dead. It wouldn’t start.”
The wind blew through the rear doors of the vehicle, creating what Reichert called a giant drift in the back of the Suburban, he said.
“We did have somewhat warm clothes, from skiing,” he said. “In the middle of the night, the storm was still raging. Even without the wind chill, it was minus 35 or minus 40 degrees.
“We were not in very good shape,” he said.
When the storm began to let up early the next day, they noticed a light flickering off in the distance.
“We thought it was a house, so I got out to walk,” he said. “Then, I realized it wasn’t a house.
It was a small granary with a light outside in the yard. I realized I was freezing and I wasn’t going anywhere, so I went back to the truck.”
On his way back to the vehicle, Reichert said he took his skis and placed them in the form of an X in the middle of the road. He also grabbed two trunks, or large suitcases, and placed them in the road.
“I was hoping if anybody got anywhere close to us, that they would see the skis and would find us,” he said.
When he got back to the vehicle, the Reicherts started to pray. It had been about 30 hours since they had become stranded.
“Maybe I wasn’t as religious then as I am today, but we prayed,” he said. “Amazingly, shortly after we started praying together, a snowplow comes down the road. They saw the skis.
“The driver said, ‘I never go down this road until three or four days after a blizzard,’ Reichert said. “But he did that time.”
It was the third day of the blizzard, and Doyle’s boss said he better make a path down County 11.
Doyle, who was in his late 30s at the time and a veteran on the road crew, was driving the snowplow, a large V-plow used to cut through large drifts. Fellow employee Brian Danielson, who was about half his age, was riding shotgun.
“It was still storming pretty bad,” Doyle said. “You drove into a snowbank and you could get stuck. You had to get out and shovel your way out and then take another run at it.”
They had made it more than half of the way to I-29 when they saw something in the road.
“There were skis and a couple of suitcases right in the road,” he said.
As they got closer, they saw the Suburban. The Reicherts immediately started running toward the plow.
“Those people were really scared. They came out of their truck crying, without any shoes on,” Doyle said. “When they opened that door, I was smiling. I didn’t want to go up there and open that car door. I didn’t want to know what we would find. They’re lucky they didn’t die out there in the storm. That would be scary, being out there with no heat.”
Doyle and Danielson gave the Reicherts a ride in to Drayton, then plowed their way back to the Suburban, leading a tow truck to haul the vehicle back to the service station.
“I don’t know how they could do it, sit in that car night and day, freezing,” Doyle said. “All you can do is just sit there and think.”
Doyle’s family has a long history with the Pembina County Highway Department. His father, George, worked there for more than 32 years.
His brother Manny, who spent his entire career with the department, now serves as a Pembina County commissioner.
Jimmy, 77, who retired from his full-time highway department job a few years ago, still works there part time in the summers, mowing roadside ditches. These days, he’s working at Bjornstad’s Certified Seed Potatoes, a Walhalla potato farm.
Danielson, who also lives in Walhalla, was not available for an interview.
Bill Reichert said he regrets not being able to return and meet their rescuers to thank them personally.
“I just felt I really should do something,” he said. “Maybe I should have done more. I’m just very happy they are still around. This changed my life so much.”