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Rare airport closure strands families, conventioners, Sundancers

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24 2013 6:05 p.m. MST

Rafael Del Rio waits at Salt Lake City International Airport, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, while waiting to fly to Los Angeles.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Surrounded by colorful, overfilled luggage in a congested airport terminal, Adam and Veronica Barr waited with their five children.

After a two-week stay with family in Utah, the Australian family's California-bound vacation came to a screeching halt Thursday when freezing rain forced Salt Lake City International Airport officials to close all runways.

"We were supposed to be in Universal Studios this time tomorrow, but it looks like we'll be looking for a place to stay here in Utah instead," Veronica Barr said. "It's just one of those things you can't control, so you make the best of it."

The family was among thousands of passengers at the airport whose flights were delayed or canceled due to weather conditions.

The airport's three runways were closed about 9:30 a.m. One runway was opened about three hours later, and a second later Thursday afternoon.

Airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann warned that major delays were still expected throughout the night.

"During the 24 years I've been here, I've never seen an airport close due to ice," she said.

Many stranded passengers are anxious to get on their flights. "Who the hell caused the mad weather?" asked Lawrence Barney, a Texan trying to get home to Houston.  

"I have appointments tomorrow, meeting with my clients and I'm missing everything," said Ruth Owens, a New Jersey resident who came to Utah for the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. "They say Utahns can handle anything, but apparently ice is the exception." 

"I'm exhausted," said David Perut, a film producer who has been in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. "I'm looking for a place on the floor at the airport which might be comfortable, but this looks like concrete to me."

Robert Booth, father of two, ages 2 and 4, was supposed to be with his kids in Disneyland Thursday. "I hope I can head back soon because I'm missing it," he said.

"I'm mad. I'm mad at the world," said San Diego chef Rafael Del Rio, in good humor. "I have a wedding cake to make for my bride this weekend."

What will the couple do if he didn't make it back in time? "Cancel the wedding," he joked. "We'll figure it out. We're just hoping we'll get there somehow."

Others were making the best of the delays. "It's OK, it's all good," said Johnny Sneed, from Los Angeles. "I'm trying to get to Mexico for a wedding, but I'll get there when I can. There's nothing I can do about it, so why stress?"

"At first, I was elated to hear that my flight was delayed," said Rob Gustaveson, a Draper resident flying to New York for a trade show. He was able to save money by parking in another lot during the delay.

"But then the flight time moved from 11 to 11:30, then 11:30 to 12, then it was canceled," Gustaveson said. "It's out of control and completely bizarre. But I shouldn't be surprised — we're in Salt Lake City."

Hotel rooms are scarce, said Gann, due to two conventions in Salt Lake City. She suggested that travelers should not venture to the airport until they are certain their flight is leaving, to avoid overcrowding.

"Flights have been canceled, fights have been diverted, some are still circling, there are still issues going on," Gann said. "It depends flight by flight, airline by airline. Passengers should check with their airline."

All airport facilities remained open throughout the runway closures.

E-mail: rlowry@desnews.com

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