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The dangers and humanity of Atlanta's 'vehicle graveyard'

By Mariano Castillo and Josh Levs, CNN
updated 3:06 PM EST, Wed January 29, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Stranded CNN journalist retreats, goes back to work
  • Big-rig trucks and cars are stuck all over roadways in Atlanta
  • The country's ninth-largest city is essentially shut down after the storm

Editor's note: CNN's Mariano Castillo, who was stranded at a coffee shop on Northside Parkway, recounted this story to CNN's Josh Levs, who is working from home.

Atlanta (CNN) -- Cars skidded around me, left and right. An 18-wheeler spun its tires and started smoking. Drivers of other big rigs slammed their accelerators to the floor, trying to get their loads moving across the snow and ice that paralyzed Atlanta Tuesday.

I was surrounded by all this, hoping my mini-SUV wouldn't lose control -- and that none of the other vehicles slithering around in this whirlwind would slam into me.

I have a wife and four kids to get home to. She and my two older children are recovering from the flu. There were no rooms available in the hotels by CNN downtown, so I left at about 3 p.m. Tuesday for the 23-mile ride to my house in Marietta, a suburb north of the city.

It usually takes half an hour. After nine hours, I was only halfway home. So I stopped, waiting for the traffic to ease.

When noon Wednesday came -- 21 hours after my journey began -- it became clear that "home" was more a wish than a realistic goal. I turned around and made my way back to the CNN Center, where I will wait out the rest of this mess.

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I've never experienced anything like this, anywhere in the world. Stretches of Interstate 75 looked like a vehicle graveyard. People abandoned their cars -- in some cases on the shoulder, but in others right in the middle of the highway. Some couldn't move in the snow and ice. Others ran out of gas. And some drivers just gave up -- at a certain point, when you're that exhausted, staying behind the wheel is too dangerous.

Sure, it was boring to be stuck in your car barely moving all that time, but you weren't bored -- because you had to be alert the whole time, for your own safety and that of everyone around you.

The snowstorm was a great equalizer. It didn't matter if you had a late model Mustang or a beater van or a Brinks armored car. Your wheels were still spinning fruitlessly on the ice, along with everybody else.

Stranded drivers tell their stories

The unexpected voices of commuters talking and walking between cars added to the eeriness.

There were also signs of people assisting each other. Good Samaritans helped walkers back up after a fall on the ice. Others helped push cars whose tires squealed with effort to grip the road. On the other hand, there were drivers who wouldn't lift a finger to aid anyone if it meant giving up an inch.

At one particularly gridlocked stretch, many people left their cars and walked to a nearby CVS for supplies. You were suddenly in the "in" crowd if you held your plastic shopping bag and its treasures like a designer handbag while trying not to bust your ass on the ice.

I found myself looking hungrily at those bags, craving anything to eat.

I was exhausted. I had been at work since 6 a.m.

I decided to get off at the next exit, Northside Parkway. I thought that was a smart call. But it turned out to be a big mistake.

There was even more ice! Here, people were spinning all over the place. I was convinced I would be next.

Then, the car next to me couldn't move. Its tires were spinning. So suddenly, a tiny gap opened for me to move. I decided to take that as a sign.

I inched my way across the road and into the parking lot of a Taco Bell, which was open overnight. Thankfully, there were still parking spots left.

My 2-year-old had played with my wallet a couple of days ago, and now I can't find my ATM card. Coincidence? Perhaps. Anyway, I had exactly $5. So I asked what was the most food I could get for that.

They gave me some kind of combo -- a taco, burrito, and quesadilla. And a fruit punch.

I had to get some shut-eye.

Benefit to having a messy car: Rummaging through the trunk, I found some clothes which I managed to fashion into a pillow.

So I headed back to my car, turned on the heat full blast and, when it was warm enough, turned off the car and fell asleep.

I woke up when it got too cold and repeated the process a few times through the night.

Fortunately, my wife had filled up the car just the day before. That made all the difference.

At around 4:30 Wednesday morning, the streets were still filled with stopped cars. And Taco Bell was still filled with people.

I walked inside to use the restroom. There were children inside, which broke my heart a bit. One was a toddler.

When I walked back outside, I saw a father cradling his infant in the driver's seat.

Minutes later, the lights in the parking lot went out and the restaurant closed up, so everyone had to leave.

I fantasized that when the sun came up the traffic would be moving. Ha! As the sun rose, the first thing I could see was its reflection -- on a seemingly endless line of stationary cars in the road.

A woman in another car near mine told me there was a Caribou Coffee open around the corner. That news came as a relief. It made my day.

I spent a chunk of my morning there. Even though the store had just a limited amount of food, the longest line was not for the cashier, but for the bathrooms. I saw an employee enter those bathrooms more than once with a plunger.

My thoughts are with everyone who braved the traffic and suffered through the entire night and the morning, and with those who helped them.

The stories I'm hearing from my neighborhood are all about abandoned cars and inaccessible roads. So tonight, I will make a different choice-- I will lay my head down on a cot in my office and watch videos of my kids playing in the snow.

Atlanta mayor: Early city exodus crippled traffic

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