Blizzard Stranded James Atlas in Newark

Instead of being in Rome for the holidays, author James Atlas and his family found themselves stranded at Newark Airport—and contemplating what happened to our civilization.

Jeff Zelevansky / Getty Images,Jeff Zelevansky

We had planned the trip the way all trips are planned these days: searching for the best airline fares on Orbitz and Travelocity; checking out accommodations on our well-thumbed Fodor’s guide; canvassing our friends for advice. We were on our way to Italy for a week after Christmas—the whole family, five in all, including our daughter’s fiancé.

The day before Christmas, storm warnings began to appear. A blizzard was headed for the Northeast; up to 24 inches of snow were predicted. The city would be “paralyzed,” according to news reports. Weather seemed to bring out people’s histrionic side, I reasoned. We would exercise our right to go anywhere at any time, as inalienable in the modern world as the right to freedom of speech. Our bags were packed. We were going.

The morning of the 26th dawned clear. Around noon, as we were on our way to Newark Airport, it began, a few innocent snowflakes swirling in the wind. By the time we unloaded our bags at the curb, it was snowing heavily. The check-in line for our flight was short, and the terminal seemed strangely empty. When we got to security, there was no line. At the gate, I studied the departures monitor. Every flight but ours had been canceled.

We boarded. The fasten-your-seatbelt sign came on. The crew was ordered to “prepare for crosscheck.” We were off.

An hour passed, and we were still at the gate. I looked out the window. It was dark by now, and snowing hard. Below, men were loading our bags onto the plane. I could only see a few feet out the window in the pitch-black night, but there were no planes on the runway—none landing, none taking off.

The cabin went dark. After a few minutes, the captain announced that the generator didn’t work. As soon as it was fixed, we would be going. Another hour passed. Snow piled up on the wings. The lights flickered on, then off. The plane shook in the wind.

There is no safety net. The state of nature is a snowstorm away.

At eight o’clock, the pilot informed us that the flight was canceled. The airport was—I understood a key word— chiuso. We would be taken off the plane “as soon as a crew could be found” to escort us. A half hour later, the lights came on and we deplaned. We were to come back tomorrow morning. The plane would be leaving “around” 2.

At the Alitalia counter, clerks were handing out meal vouchers. We adjourned to a nearby restaurant, the Raw Bar Blu, and commandeered a table under the low pasteboard ceiling. The walls were plywood; we were at a construction site. Around us sat other passengers from the flight and a handful of homeless people with their belongings in shopping carts. I had a dry tuna-fin sandwich with slabs of undercooked bacon—great, trichinosis—on top; the kids got cheeseburgers from McDonald’s in the food court.

We evolved a plan: Head for the train station and get on a train for New York. The New Jersey Transit line was running; if we hurried, we could catch the 10:10 and be home in our beds at midnight. We bought tickets at an automated machine and boarded the PlaneTrain.

The cars were jammed. There were only a few seats; everyone else stood. The doors wouldn’t close. Stand away from the doors, an electronic voice repeated over and over. Finally, the doors closed. The train didn’t move. After 20 minutes, the car lurched forward. It stopped and started for awhile, and we pulled into a station—P3. People got on and off. The doors closed and the train started off—in the wrong direction. Soon we were back at P2. The platform was crowded. I recognized people from our flight. A family with five sons; a French family of four; an elderly, distinguished-looking couple speaking German. Dispatchers in red jackets herded us into a train on the opposite platform, listening intently on their walkie-talkies. Someone asked about the engineer; there were no engineers. The train was automated. But it was headed for the train station, they assured us. At P3, it stopped. The doors failed to open. I was beginning to perspire; for the first time, I felt a flicker of anxiety. Finally they opened.

There was a line outside the men’s room. “I wouldn’t go in there,” a bystander advised. “It’s a mess.” I was thirsty, but there was no drinking fountain. I went up to a clerk at a counter and asked where I could find water. My mouth was dry. He hesitated, glanced at a colleague, and led me to a back room where there was a watercooler.

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We boarded again, and eventually got to P4, one stop away from the station. The train crept forward, then slid back on the iced-up rails. There were no announcements. A rumor went through the crowd. Return to P2. The shuttle was shutting down. There would be no trains to the station that night.

Back at the terminal, I began to relax. There were no shuttle buses to the hotels—by now a foot of snow had accumulated—and no hotel rooms available in any event, but at least we weren’t stuck in a shuttle car. There would be restaurants. We could sit in the carpeted departure lounge and figure out a plan.

A metal gate had been pulled down: The departure area was off-limits. We headed upstairs to find an Alitalia representative. The counters were deserted. People were scattered about, some sleeping on the floor, others perched on the heating grates. I spotted the elderly German couple huddled in a corner. There were no security guards, no airline representatives, no one at the information booth. The airport was closed—not just the runways, but the whole airport. Its employees had fled in the night. A lone janitor pushed a broom. The business- and first-class travelers had vanished; they were probably nestling in the leather chairs of the Alitalia Sky Lounge. Not the passengers in economy. In two hours, you could go from being a member of the privileged middle class to a stateless person, trapped, with no options, nothing to eat—the food court was closed—nowhere to go.

Anna and I lay down on the cold linoleum floor, pillowing our heads on our carry-on bags. It was 12:35 in the morning. The children had gone down to the baggage-claim area to see if they could find a taxi.

A few minutes later, they were back. A guy with a van that had four-wheel drive would take us into the city for $150. I pictured us being driven to a dark corner of Newark and robbed, left for dead in a snow bank. But he had a business card and livery plates, so we piled in and headed out into the storm.

On the highway, cars and trucks were stuck in high drifts of snow. We crept along; every few minutes the driver had to jump out and clear the windshield. I stared out the window at the New Jersey landscape. Visibility was zero. No pylons, no chemical-poisoned swamps, no cylindrical gas tanks. It looked like frozen tundra. I half-expected to see an Eskimo in a huskie-driven sled whiz by.

The Lincoln Tunnel was closed when we got there. Squad car flashers whirled redly through the blizzard. A huge petroleum truck had broken down, and we were stuck at the entrance for half an hour. By the time we got home, it was nearly 3 a.m.

The next morning, we switched on the Weather Channel. The snow had stopped, but all was chaos. The airports would be shut down until 6 o’clock that evening. Flights would be delayed for days. Ciao, bella Roma. And to the illusion that we live in a civilized society. There is no safety net. The state of nature is a snowstorm away.

“Your voice makes me sad,” I told the Alitalia ticket clerk I finally got on the line in Rome to process our refund. “I was so looking forward to Italy.”

“In another period,” he assured me. “Italy wait. You will come.” Yes, but not out of Newark. Not on Alitalia. And not—I mean this—without fear.

James Atlas is the president of Atlas & Co. and founder of the Penguin Lives series. His books include Bellow: A Biography and the memoir My Life in the Middle Ages, and his biography of Delmore Schwartz was nominated for the National Book Award.