HIGHLAND As the storm finally broke and roads in northern Utah County began to clear Thursday, worried parents rushed to Ridgeline Elementary School in Highland to pick up their sleepy children.
The stranded students spent the night at the school, playing games and watching movies, finally falling asleep around 11 p.m. as they waited out the blizzard conditions. The wind blew drifts up to 6 feet high outside the Highland school, 6250 W. 11800 North.
Teachers stayed up, eating snacks, talking, laughing and even singing "Kumbaya" in a circle. Parents began to trickle in at 6 a.m. to retrieve their kids.
"It's been an adventure," said Rich Chiniquy. He hugged both his daughters, his arms wrapped snugly around each girl while walking down the school hallway.
Chiniquy was stuck for eight hours in his car Wednesday night attempting to reach his girls. He finally abandoned his vehicle and started to walk home. He got a ride to his house from police just after midnight.
"They're my kids. I had to make an attempt," he said. "It was worth the eight hours."
Chiniquy went to the school Thursday morning using back roads.
About 180 people were at Ridgeline late Wednesday night. By Thursday at 6 a.m. there were 100 people there, including 65 students, 19 faculty, 13 parents and three small children. Eventually, they all made it home Thursday.
Many of the students were ones who had gone out on the buses after school at about 3:40 p.m. Ten of the buses were unable to complete their routes and had to return to the school. The final bus, transporting 30 children, rolled back to the school at 9:30 p.m. an almost six-hour trek to nowhere.
First-grade teacher Kristina Chidester said many of the children were scared and crying when they arrived back at the school after the long bus ride.
"I just hugged them," Chidester said.
Chiniquy said, "I'm happy people were willing to spend all night here and take care of them."
Approximately 45 students were trapped at Harvest Elementary School, 2105 N. Providence Drive in Saratoga Springs, until 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. The electricity went off at 5 p.m. Seven teachers spent the night.
Some parents said they believe Alpine School District officials should have let school out early Wednesday so the entire scenario could have been avoided.
"I think the district has failed us and failed to respond to the needs of this school. I don't know if they were aware of the severity of the situation," said parent Vickie Iverson, who has a sixth-grader at the school.
"As a parent, I am outraged that we would ask our teachers to work 24 hours non-stop, only to begin another contract day with no pay, no reward and no thanks," Iverson said. "The district needs to be held accountable for their decision."
Alpine district officials initially said Ridgeline would be open at 11 a.m. Thursday. They then decided the school should be closed for the full day Thursday.
"I'm going to sleep all day," Chidester said, as she scraped ice off her car in the Ridgeline school parking lot at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Cedar Valley Elementary School was also closed Thursday.
Four other schools opened late at 11 a.m. on Thursday: Pony Express, Harvest, Saratoga Shores and Fox Hollow elementary schools.
Chiniquy said, "If you ever needed a snow day, today was it."
Alpine Superintendent Vernon Henshaw was in Florida accepting a state Superintendent of the Year award but was in contact with school administrators.
District spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley said "it was a lot harder and more dramatic of a storm than anyone anticipated, including meteorologists."
"It caught all of us off guard. Had we known it was going to be that bad, in a heartbeat we would have gotten those kids home (earlier)."
Bromley and two other administrators visited Ridgeline at midnight and found everything to be running smoothly, she said.
Parent Melanie Quintana said she thinks the district did a great job throughout the ordeal. The mom said she received two voice mail messages at home from the district: one when the buses were back at the school, and then another to tell her to come pick up her children. Kids also called their parents once they returned to the school.
Neighbors took over quilts, blankets, sleeping bags and pillows. The students slept in individual classrooms, separated by gender and supervised by teachers.
The school had emergency food, frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Neighbors also delivered water, string cheese, crackers, fruit and cereal for the stranded party. The local grocery store Kohler's donated many food items. There were even toothbrushes for everyone.
Some neighbors who live close to the school picked up children for other residents.
"It's quite a community," said sixth-grade teacher Andrea Park.
Many neighbors offered up their homes to the teachers and kids, but educators decided it was safer to keep the group all together in one place. They topped the night off by watching "The Incredibles."
Every parent had an adventure to tell.
Diane Hardy said she picked up her kid at 4:15 p.m. and headed home. They didn't make it past the gas station at 5300 West and 11000 North in Highland, where they were stuck until 10:15 p.m.
They passed the six hours by playing word games in the car. They would go through the alphabet and come up with an item for each letter: something they wanted to eat or a place they wanted to go: Alfredo and Acapulco.
Finally they turned around and went to the Wendy's restaurant nearby, where many people were stranded for the night. They decided the school would be more fun and comfortable, so they headed there and arrived at midnight. They slept on the floor.
"Actually, I didn't sleep very much," Hardy said."It was better than sleeping in the car," said Rachel Bischoff, 11, a fifth-grader, who was carpooling with Hardy.