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UPDATE: Region students headed home after blizzard stranded them
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UPDATE: Region students headed home after blizzard stranded them


A chartered bus full of students and adults from St. Mary Catholic School in Griffith is heading home after being stranded westbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike more than 21 hours.

The 28 eighth-graders and dozen adults were on their way back from March for Life in Washington, D.C., when their bus got caught in the middle of Winter Storm Jonas, which buried the East Coast in snow.

"We are finally rolling," Barney Begeske said via cellphone about 6 p.m. Saturday. "Now, it's home sweet home."

Begeske is one of the parents chaperoning the trip. Initially, they anticipated the bus would start moving again Sunday morning. Griffith Town Council President Rick Ryfa, a St. Mary's parishioner, texted David Kane, Indiana's Homeland Security Director, about the situation.

The agency reached out to emergency officials in Pennsylvania to notify them. Emergency management officials in Pennsylvania placed a priority service request on the situation. Within an hour, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence called Ryfa and Begeske to let them know the state was doing what it could to help.

"It's nice to see government work for a change," Ryfa said. "I'd like to thank Gov. Pence and the members of his staff and the state agencies that contacted Pennsylvania. We hope and pray for a safe trip the rest of the way home."

The bus is expected to arrive back in the Region about 3 or 4 a.m. Sunday.

"Father (Theodore) Mens is going to have Mass on the bus while we're traveling," Begeske said.

Passengers were able to exit the bus and walk to a nearby service stop to use the restroom. A local fire department brought food and water to the bus Saturday afternoon. The bus had heat, and passengers were able to keep their phones charged. The most difficult part was not being able to get information from emergency officials, Begeske said.

"We couldn't get an answer from any governing body," he said.

When Indiana's homeland security intervened, "then things started happening for us," he said. "Governor Pence was gracious enough to give us a call. He caught wind of our situation and he wanted to make sure everything was fine."

Begeske is proud of how the students and chaperons handled the situation.

"It's been a little stressful," he said.

Another group from Illiana Christian High School is still en route home after its own treacherous trip through Pennsylvania, with 48 students expected to arrive home late Saturday.

Illiana Christian's two buses hit gridlock as well on Friday in Pennsylvania. Unlike St. Mary, however, they were able to get out of the state and were a few hours from home in Ohio as of Saturday afternoon, senior Amanda Van Kalker, 18, said.

"No cars could get through," Van Kalker said. "We would wait two hours and move a couple inches, wait another hour and move a couple of inches."

Both schools made the trip to take part in Friday's March for Life in Washington.

The Illiana Christian contingent left the capital at 3 p.m. and were only three hours into their drive when they couldn't go farther.

The St. Mary group also left early after Friday's event to try and get ahead of the weather, Begeske said. But by Friday night, the turnpike had turned into a snowy parking lot, as the blizzard dumped snow in several states. They could not get past New Buena Vista.

"There was a traffic incident on the turnpike and that shut everything down," Begeske said.

Illiana Christian history teacher Jeff White said the bus with 48 students and two adults got stuck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for about five hours while a second bus with 20 adults was stuck for nine hours.

"We thought we had the storm behind us and then there was an accident on the turnpike and the storm caught up to us," White said. 

When that bus finally got out, it went to a rest stop and waited four hours for the second bus to arrive.

Van Kalker said while the bus kept them warm, they did get hungry.

"At first everyone was down about it, but you learn to make the best of it and just enjoy your time with each other," Van Kalker said.

Besides the march, students from both parties visited some sites in Washington, D.C.

"We kind of all learned from this experience you can't control the circumstances but the Lord has a plan and he will see you through," said Van Kalker, of Dyer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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Senior Digital Producer

Matt is a web editor for The Times. He came to the Region after spending the first 10 years of his career with the Longview Daily News, Lincoln Journal Star and Peninsula Daily News. He is a graduate of Arizona State University.

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