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A snowy nightmare in Atlanta: Getting your family when no one else will

By Rick Martin, CNN
updated 5:30 PM EST, Sat February 1, 2014
A woman exhales in the freezing temperatures of Philadelphia on Thursday, January 23. Driven by frigid arctic air, a powerful system is making a mess of things up and down the Eastern Seaboard, especially from Washington to Boston. More than a foot of snow has fallen in parts of the Northeast. A woman exhales in the freezing temperatures of Philadelphia on Thursday, January 23. Driven by frigid arctic air, a powerful system is making a mess of things up and down the Eastern Seaboard, especially from Washington to Boston. More than a foot of snow has fallen in parts of the Northeast.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rick Martin is both father and CNN journalist
  • He was frustrated when his wife and daughters were trapped in snow-bound traffic
  • Using journalist training and inspiration from heroe, he took to the roads to rescue family

Editor's note: Rick Martin is a husband and father of two young girls. He is a senior news editor at CNN and a career journalist with 25 years' experience in breaking news.

(CNN) -- "You've got to save your best leadership for home." These are the words of retired U.S. Army Commander Lt. General Russel L. Honore at a recent speaking event on leadership in the 21st century.

Two nights ago, I found my two most active roles in life -- family man and journalist -- intersecting in a crisis. It was 3 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon when my wife alerted me. I was enjoying my afternoon off, comfortable in the warmth of our home, watching the snow from a rare winter storm blanket our deck and backyard.

My wife, who is a fifth-grade school teacher in Fulton County, Georgia, received word that her school was shutting down because of the inclement weather. "Honey I've got the kids. I'm on my way home," she said after school was dismissed early, and parents were rushing to get their children.

As a journalist, I recognized that a news story was breaking before me. My wife's normal 20-minute daily commute was about to turn into an ordeal that would last nearly 24 hours. And I soon discovered that skills honed over years in the newsroom, were my best tools for assisting my wife and children.

More than three hours later, she still hadn't moved very far.

We stayed in constant contact as she inched along the 6-mile stretch of state highway leading her home.

Governor: I apologize to Atlanta drivers
Mom with baby waits 18 hours in traffic
Dude, where's my car?

From the news, I soon realized this was no ordinary traffic jam. My family was stuck in gridlocked traffic caused by a one-two-punch of bad weather and poor government planning.

Midnight approached and my wife told me she hadn't been able to move the car at all since 10 p.m. The half-tank of gas she started with that afternoon had dwindled, and temperatures were well-below freezing. The kids hadn't eaten. There was no restroom in sight.

I felt hopeless and helpless. I called Georgia State Patrol and explained to them that my wife and kids were stranded in a vehicle among hundreds of other vehicles. I wanted to know how my family was going to be helped. They told me, "We don't know sir. We're trying, but we are out-manned now."

Filled with adrenalin, I just couldn't sit idle with my family stranded. I called local authorities and was told the same thing. By this time, I was so angry, I couldn't think straight. I texted a friend who suggested prayer and texted me a bible verse to read, Philippians 4:1-14.

I took to social media to help me cope with the situation and people reacted with posts of support. I stayed in touch with my wife a minimum of once per hour and at times twice per hour.

On Facebook, I posted: "More than 14 and a half hours, my wife and kids remain stranded in car stuck in traffic because of snow. Situation is desperate now. Been on phone w/ State police repeatedly who agree w/ me. All prayers are welcome as I'm praying for the safe return of many of my friends in similar situations too."

My wife later told me she cried only once, around 5 a.m., not knowing when she was going to be able to get the children home. She imagined having to wait for days, maybe until the snow and ice melted. It was so, so cold and she couldn't keep the engine running all night for fear of running out of gas. That's also about when I lost it, I told her -- about 5 a.m.

At one point an act of kindness gave her hope: A truck driver knocked on the window in the middle of the night offering water and a blanket.

She huddled the girls together in the front seat to keep them warm. "I didn't let the girls see me cry," she said.

I felt so guilty about it all. Why didn't I fill up the car with gas? Why didn't I get the oil changed? How could I drop the ball on my family?

I thought about Gen. Honore, who I have come to admire even more since hearing him talk about leadership and life lessons. I decided it was time to take action.

I called the Georgia State Patrol and local authorities one more time. They could offer me very little.

I told them if police couldn't get my family , it was time for me to try. The state patrol dispatcher advised me to stay off the roads. It was now 20 hours into the ordeal.

At day-break, I told my wife, "I am coming to get you." She said she didn't think I could get to her. I said, "Don't worry about that. Against advice of the local and state authorities, I'm going to try."

I posted a message on Facebook letting folks know what I was going to do and asked for prayers. The reaction came pouring in.

I called my neighbor Kenneth Rucker, retired military and current investigator with a local district attorney's office. Taking me in his four-wheel -drive truck, Rucker expertly traversed the thick ice on bridges passing hundreds of stranded vehicles along the way.

I was laser focused on the mission: Find my wife and kids and extricate them. I trudged up an ice-covered northbound lane of highway, as Ken's pickup made a zig-zag between hundreds of stranded vehicles to get to a safe stop.

I grabbed each of my daughters, and carried them one by one across the median strip to the warmth of Ken's truck. Then I escorted my wife into Ken's vehicle. I moved my wife's car into the median and left it there not knowing or caring when the traffic would start to move.

I was leading my family home.

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